A transformative SPARK

Maya Dummett ’26 teaches academic writing to youth in Paterson, New Jersey. Photo credit: Maya Dummett

3 min read

The summer between high school and college is often filled with fleeting farewells and nervous energy as students prepare themselves for their lives ahead in a new home.  At Harvard, one of the most transformative aspects of the college experience is students sharing their own formative experiences and perspectives with one another.  That’s where the SPARK program has been a tremendous catalyst for learning and growth.

SPARK is an immersive six-week public service program for incoming first-year students where students work on a public service project of their own design at home while receiving ongoing support from the Harvard community. The program began in 2019 to create greater awareness and visibility of public service work at Harvard College.  Incoming students meet with student leaders from Phillips Brooks House Association and the Institute of Politics, along with campus leaders including Dean Rakesh Khurana and Michael Brown, past president of the Harvard College Board of Overseers and co-founder of City Year.  Ally Phillip from the Social Innovation and Change Initiative (SICI) led a workshop on helping students identify sources of power, focusing on SICI’s 3P framework for social change: 1) understanding the problem 2) demonstrating personal ability to lead change 3) and offering a promising pathway for change.  Leah Robinson led a workshop to help students cultivate efficacy.

Many students among the 100 participants in the 2022 SPARK cohort provided critical term-time support to community-based programs.  While the students provided critical services and support to their neighbors, they also learned more about themselves.  “After seeing students fearlessly chart new territory into unexplored career paths, I became more motivated to embrace the same liberty and confidence. I began exploring more options for what career path I might go down and imagining ways these careers would intersect with public service. Learning from the students I worked with was empowering both for me and for them and really at the heart of what SPARK is all about!” said Mukta Dharmapurikar ’26, who worked with Durham County Cooperative Extension in North Carolina.

The opportunity to learn and reflect with staff, faculty, and fellow incoming students in the SPARK community was also a great benefit.  “I am forever grateful for this program and the incredible community I found along the way,” said Rosie Couture ’26, who worked at Generation Ratify in Arlington, Virginia.

The SPARK program also gave many students the opportunity to thank the communities that nurtured their growth.  Maya Dummett ’26 worked with Oasis, an organization that provided social services, educational support, and basic needs to women and girls in New Jersey.  “As a young Black girl who grew up in a neighboring town of Paterson, the community that Oasis serves reminded me so much of my own. Truly, the children of Oasis reminded me so much of myself too. However, I never had my own Oasis growing up. I knew then and there that I wanted to pour all of myself into supporting their work,” she said.