In a semester full of transitions and change, SPARQ! is yet another evolving component of campus life at Bates.
SPARQ! is a program run through the Office of Intercultural Education (OIE) that supports LGBTQIAP2+ students through mentorship, student programming, and other support services, while also providing space for allyship.
“A Transition Year”
Under leadership of new Assistant Dean of the OIE, Steven D. Parker, SPARQ! is currently undergoing changes, and new systems are being put in place in order to ensure that the program is “successful and sustainable” for future generations of students. This includes assessing what has already been done with SPARQ!, taking into account success rates from past programming, and looking at how they were sustained.
There are two key changes affecting SPARQ! this year. The OIE staff is entirely new to Bates, and SPARQ! is in the process of becoming “more professional,” according to Eaton. One example she shared is that students who in the past were employed as “peer mentors” are now co-advisors with more responsibility and professionality.
During this transitional period, Parker emphasized that it will be important to keep coming back to the following questions: “Did this program impact how students are getting through the school? Is it helping them? Is it building community? Is it building the space for educational justice to occur?”
Parker also shared that student programming needs to include clear learning objectives and evaluate the satisfaction of students, both in terms of the environment and sociability of these programs.
With regards to the mentorship program of years past, Parker said: “When we say mentors we need to be very clear about what that means.” He emphasized that “this is not a game,” which is why it is so important that SPARQ! mentors undergo thoughtful, intentional training so that they can professionally support their peers.
Dawrin Silfa ‘21 and Olivia Eaton ‘23 are both SPARQ! co-advisors this year. Their role is to assist in developing and hosting programs for students. The current goal is to host 3-5 programs this semester and 3-5 programs in the winter semester, for a total of 6-10 programs over the course of the 2020-21 academic year.
Topher Castaneda ‘20 is an Americorps Vista with the Harward Center this year and has also been working to develop a handbook for SPARQ! that can be used in years to come. “[The program’s] not going to be what it was last year, but we will still support students in any way we can,” he said.
Last month, SPARQ! hosted an in-person Q-connect dinner, where “LGBTQIA2P+ students and their allies come together to connect and foster a sense of community through…sharing a meal, discussions and personal.” They also hosted a virtual LGBTQIA2P+ Heritage Month event, and are planning an upcoming trans day of remembrance/ resilience event.
In addition to in-person programming, SPARQ! is hosting passive events: goodie bag giveaways, supportive post-its, and virtual programming geared towards creating an online community.
However, according to Castaneda students really want in-person programming. “They crave connection and deeper meaning.” He believes this is harder to find through virtual programming where it’s “easier to disconnect, get distracted, jump on your phone –– all these things that inhibit people from making connections.”
Castaneda hopes to involve more faculty in the program, especially for the benefit of seniors who will soon be navigating their own workspaces. “I want to put together a panel of queer and trans folks who may have held different positions before,” Castaneda said. People who can answer questions such as: “What’s it been like navigating your sexuality in a new job?”
Additionally, Parker and Castaneda are working on building an online queer community amongst Bowdoin, Colby, and Bates. “I’m new here, and because I’m new I have to build those relationships with our counterparts in order to begin that work in unifying our spaces,” Parker said.
Vision & Intersectionality
Eaton and Silfa are both working with Parker to completely revamp the program. “I envision it becoming a group where queer and questioning students can come together to talk, get to know each other, and learn,” Eaton shared. She added that she’s “excited to help improve the program so students who have yet to interact with the OIE or the queer groups on campus can feel more comfortable and safe in the space.”
Another goal of the program is to make SPARQ! a more inviting space for BIPOC students, “because in the past, it has always been a very white space,” according to Eaton. “I am excited to work with Steven and others in the department like Nicolette and Rachel to create an environment that is more equal and comfortable for our queer POC students,” she said.
Like Eaton, Castaneda is eager to create more space for conversations around the topic of intersectionality by considering the impact of race, socio-economic status, and other identities within the queer community. “I think it’d be helpful to dive more into [that]. It creates that deeper understanding and creates more vulnerability and insight in people,” Castaneda said.
The OIE has partnered with various departments across campus this semester. For example, the “Let’s Talk” series was developed in collaboration with Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) as a way for students to seek out counselors without needing to schedule an appointment. Castaneda would like Bates to bring in more specialists in CAPS, including professionals who really understand the particular needs of the queer community.
The OIE is also working with Athletics to develop student support groups for underrepresented student populations, and Ladd Library is working with the OIE to support cultural heritage experiences. Another partnership that Parker is excited to have made is with the Office of College Advancement, where the goal is to create opportunities for mentorship.
Even though the program is currently in a transitional phase, students should know that they can still seek out support and be on the lookout for virtual and in-person events.
“This space is for every student on campus,” Parker said. “We welcome all students to come and embrace in this space, embrace in the educational opportunities, and invest in building this social community.”
Eaton shared a similar message: “Please come hang out in the OIE! It may look different, but we are the same fun and safe space that we have been in the past.”
Adding to this sentiment, Castaneda said he “[wants] every student to be able to walk out of here and feel like they can talk to someone,” and he wants these programs to help connect people and make them feel seen.
Parker hopes to be able to welcome faculty, staff, and community members back to the OIE in the near future. “This space holds a lot of knowledge, a lot of resources, a lot of services to the community at large,” he concluded.