With the goal of exposing rising high school seniors to career and college opportunities beyond secondary education, a group of Mississippi State University student leaders gathered during July 11-14 to host 350 students from across the Southeast at MSU’s annual S.P.A.R.K. leadership conference.
Led by Tabora Cook, coordinator of recruitment activities in the Office of Admissions and Scholarships at MSU, S.P.A.R.K. (Students Paving a Road to Knowledge) hosted their second annual conference this summer. Cook said he and his colleagues began discussing a conference such as this in early 2017. He expressed a need for MSU to be a resource for underrepresented high school students seeking career and academic guidance beyond high school.
“I felt like that demographic needed more guidance and mentorship on what to do when they left high school,” Cook said.
The conference hosted several keynote speakers including Mark Keenum, president of MSU; ShirDonna Lawrence, assistant director of Fraternity and Sorority Life; Brandi Kirkland, leasing and marketing manager for the Social Block and motivational speaker Samuel Jones. Cook said the goal of the conference is to provide underrepresented students with the tools they need to be successful, as well as expose them to people who will aid them on their journey to success.
"Our goal is to develop our students," Cook said.
Although all students may not attend college, Cook said the conference acts as a means to guide them toward other options. Trade schools, the military and community colleges are all avenues that can provide bright futures for graduating high school students.
"At the conference, we put all of those options in front of them," Cook said.
Cook said the student crew leaders are the lifeblood of the conference. He said many students who are a part of S.P.A.R.K. are looking to be of service to underrepresented high school students because they have an understanding of the difficulties those students face.
Although the S.P.A.R.K. conference is geared toward underrepresented students, Cook said this includes a diverse range of students. Conference-goers range from students who attend underfunded high schools, to students who live in rural areas or to those who are not exposed to proper resources for success. Cook said the conference teaches life skills such as a financial literacy to help students become better equipped for life beyond their high school walls.
"Everyone doesn’t have the same access to opportunities, and everyone doesn’t come from the same background, but everyone deserves a chance and those opportunities," Cook said.
S.P.A.R.K. Conference Director Ashley McLemore, a junior finance major, said her experience during this year’s conference was fulfilling, as she appreciated witnessing many of the students’ growth firsthand.
"It’s rewarding because I get to see students come into the conference confused, and we help develop them in a short amount of time," McLemore said.
During the conference, students had the opportunity to interact with current students and graduates of MSU at a panel discussion, learn how to navigate a college website and prepare for filling out the FAFSA.
“A lot of what we discuss here at S.P.A.R.K. is to make sure that the right individuals know that they have access to these types of resources,” McLemore said.
McLemore said the growth at this year’s conference was steady, and many students developed a greater understanding of career and academic options beyond high school.
“A lot of them can see their end goal after they leave high school more clearly, and I know that we helped with that,” McLemore said.
S.P.A.R.K. Crew Leader Myla Young, a junior kinesiology major, said this conference also allowed her to grow as a person, as she helped lead and develop young high school students. Young said many students have reached out to her after the conference, expressing their gratitude and future plans.
“I made an impact and didn’t even realize it,” Young said.
Young said she enjoys being of service to others, and the S.P.A.R.K conference offered her another opportunity to do that.
“Overall my experience was great; I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Young said.
For more information about S.P.A.R.K., visit their Instagram @spark_msstate.