S.P.A.R.K. leadership conference at MSU prepares high school seniors for life’s next step

MSU Student Association President Mayah Emerson speaks to high school seniors on Friday [July 13] during the university’s first S.P.A.R.K. (Students Paving a Road to Knowledge) leadership conference. (Photo by Beth Wynn)

Contact: James Carskadon

STARKVILLE, Miss.—Approximately 300 rising high school seniors are at Mississippi State University this weekend for a conference that will help prepare them for life after they finish high school.

S.P.A.R.K. (Students Paving a Road to Knowledge) is a new leadership conference that helps underrepresented students create their individual plans and set goals for the future. The conference is led by Tabora Cook, coordinator of recruitment activities in MSU’s Office of Admissions and Scholarships.

“I’ve always been passionate about underrepresented students and their access to higher education, and that is a passion of everyone in this office,” Cook said. “We wanted to use our resources to reach students that typically wouldn’t have access to something like this.”

The three-day conference, which Cook said has drawn interest from across Mississippi and as far away as New Jersey and New York, is free for participants. The conference agenda includes information sessions, inspirational keynote speakers and fun, challenging activities.

“I want every student to leave the S.P.A.R.K. leadership conference with two things: First, a plan of action for the day they graduate from high school, so they know what’s going to happen next,” Cook said. “Second, I want them to have a connection to the university. All the counselors that these students have will continue to mentor them when they go back for their senior year of high school.”

When determining how to plan a conference that would best engage participants, Cook said he relied heavily on his team of counselors, all of which are MSU students and closer in age to the high school seniors. Jailand Williams, a senior marketing major from Moss Point and S.P.A.R.K. counselor, said he got involved with the conference because he wanted to help students get the most out of the program.

“You have to figure out how to accommodate the students, what their interests are, and how you can motivate them,” Williams said. “I’m learning how to help others decide what they want in life, while at the same time I’m figuring out what I want to do with my life. Each night I have an opportunity to give them advice, and we reflect on what they learned and offer a little more insight.”

Keynote speakers for the conference include Mayah Emerson, an educational psychology major from Meridian and the first African American female to be elected president of the MSU Student Association; JP Abercrumbie, MSU’s assistant athletic director for life skills and community engagement; and Michael Breazeale, assistant professor of marketing in MSU’s College of Business.

During her interactive keynote session, Emerson encouraged students not to worry about how others see them, but focus on the reasons they can be successful.

“I hope you realize that underrepresented does not equal restricted,” Emerson said. “It does not mean that your possibilities are limited. It does absolutely mean that your possibilities are endless. There’s absolutely nothing that you cannot do if you put the work in.”

Conference activities include career assessments, meetings with representatives from various career paths, discussions with current and former underrepresented college students, a talent show, money management exercise, as well as leadership and recreational activities.

MSU President Mark E. Keenum encouraged S.P.A.R.K. attendees to find their passion and pursue higher education.

“I hope all of you are aspiring to continue your education,” Keenum said. “Wherever you decide to go, I want you to be committed to go to college. Make it happen. Don’t make excuses, make it happen.”

For more on S.P.A.R.K., visit www.admissions.msstate.edu/spark.

MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at www.msstate.edu.