SPARC ignites first-years’ discourse

My Junior Advisor (JA) yelled in the stairway: “It’s time for SPARC. Let’s go!” As I pulled myself away from the giant load of work that needed to get done, I wondered, like many first-years, what I was headed towards for three hours of my Sunday afternoon. What is SPARC?

SPARC, which is a workshop for first-years run by the Williams Community Building Project (WCBP), stands for Students Promoting Awareness, Respect and Community, and in its name explains its purpose. “SPARC is designed to facilitate discussion of pressing community issues, of differing beliefs and of diversity in a respectful, confidential environment,” said Ohm Deshpande ’04, a co-coordinator of SPARC and Record Executive Editor.

The goal of SPARC is to bring to the table issues which might not normally be discussed, but which are crucial to understanding and communicating with the people you live with. An entire first-year entry along with its JAs attends the SPARC workshop together. The workshop is run by two facilitators who lead the group in several activities aimed at bringing forth those pressing issues, and making the students question their stand on them by introducing differing opinions in the entry.

Several subjects, such as racial prejudice, sexual harassment and religious intolerance are not just discussed but are made to come to life by the sharing of everyone’s experiences with the problems. But, SPARC, according to Deshpande, is supposed to be a “starting point, not a life-changing experience.” SPARC is intended to build in its participants the ability to broach the taboo issues, not to resolve those issues in three hours. It is constructed to start a conversation that will continue throughout the lives of its participants. “It definitely broke down the barriers between me and my entry-mates,” Grant Sanders ’07 said.

SPARC is purported to be an intense experience with many personal revelations and many emotional stories. A key aspect to its intensity is confidentiality. What is discussed during SPARC is not to leave that room. “Trusting my entry and knowing that it was going to remain confidential was crucial to my divulging personal information,” Lars Ojukwu ’07 said. This need for confidentiality leaves the success of SPARC very dependent on the entry dynamic and the amount of trust each individual member of the entry has in the other individuals in the specific group, not to mention the degree to which they feel comfortable with one another.

Another ingredient that builds the intensity of SPARC is a feeling of commonality between the participants. People talk because they see their friends talk. “I don’t think I would have voluntarily revealed personal information about myself if I didn’t know that others were doing it too,” Jennifer Menzies ’07 said. This feeling of unity and comfort is further developed during the SPARC workshop, and is one of its goals. By seeing that people have lived through similar experiences, a SPARC attendee can feel a sense of community and ease in discussing personal concerns.

However, not everyone takes from SPARC what it tries to give. Several students each year note that the workshop is time consuming and that they see no tangible benefit. There are also students who leave SPARC with a feeling of alienation because of their solitary stance on an issue. Others are overcome by the feeling that their disclosure of private emotions didn’t accomplish anything and was purposeless. It is also difficult to share one’s feelings in a large group, which causes some controversy among first-years. Several students complained that they shouldn’t be forced into talking about sensitive issues. They feel that it is appropriate to talk about those issues when they come up naturally.

But in general, SPARC has a positive impact. “Sometimes a forced environment is necessary to instigate a serious conversation,” Eric Hsu ’05 said. SPARC has a policy of complete respect – you don’t have to reveal anything you don’t want to and you will not be judged for what you say or don’t say. So, even though the conversation is initiated in an unnatural setting, it is still supposed to be comfortable, meaningful and not obligatory, and is meant to continue in natural settings.

In the end, SPARC’s effectiveness is contingent on the participating individual. “People should go into SPARC with an open mind and invest themselves in it. Emotion and community are built through participation,” Deshpande said. Its success is dependent on how each individual feels about sharing, trusting, and listening. For some entries, SPARC has achieved its purpose. For others, it has not. But, if you go in unbiased you are likely to get out at least three hours of conversation and connecting with your friends, if nothing more.

It’s a spark of energy meant to start something meaningful, and not a fire meant to change everything.