The Daily Tar Heel

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Sunday March 26th

UNC's SPARK program helps support, connect women-identifying students of color

The adjustment to college is not always an easy one. 

But SPARK, a program designed for women-identifying undergraduate students of color, is working to make that transition a little bit easier. 

“A lot of times, students of color don't feel like they belong (at UNC) or have difficulty transitioning,” said Melissa Yu, leadership development graduate coordinator for Student Life & Leadership at the Carolina Union. “It’s important to have SPARK and find strength in community.” 

The organization is hosting its fifth annual retreat from Oct. 8 to 10 for first year and transfer students. The retreat will be held at YMCA Camp Weaver in Greensboro. 

Keoana Nettles, student leadership coordinator for SPARK, said retreat participants can expect to partake in activities from team building to leadership exercises. 

She added that attendees will also complete regular journal prompts to help them reflect on topics covered during the event. 

“We know what we cover at times can be viewed as heavy or sensitive topics for women of color,” Nettles said. “We want to make sure people know you’re not alone in your experiences. You have people here who can help you.” 

Nettles, who has been a member since 2018, said the the retreat attracts a greater number of participants each year and helps the organization grow. 

But the event’s success is not only measured in numbers. Brian Lackman, associate director of Student Life & Leadership,said in an email that the event’s progress has also been evidenced by the meaningful relationships built by attendees. 

“It is critical that we provide intentional opportunities for female-identified women of color to create community together,” Lackman said. “This provides space for students to engage in relationships that can support their development and create a community that can enable them to thrive on campus.”

But SPARK isn't just about a first-year retreat; the group offers focused-based cohorts with blocs of members organized by academic year. 

“It starts off with this really rich environment to build community,” Yu said. “Throughout the other years, we do smaller events for participants. In the spring, we’re planning a little leadership development for all members of SPARK, regardless of what cohort they are in.” 

Nettles said another major focus of the program is career development, hosting professional networking events and encouraging its members to pursue internship opportunities. 

“A lot of professionals within UNC and the community come and speak to the participants and give them advice,” Nettles said. “People find mentors. They end up finding jobs from these people. That’s one of the really big things we like doing.” 

Nettles said the program also hosts events that include Friendsgiving, movie nights and community service. She added these events are open to everyone.  

Yu she encourages those interested in SPARK to attend its events and upcoming information session on Sept. 9 from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., with both in-person and virtual attendance options available. 

Applications for the October retreat will open on Heel Life following the Sept. 9 information session and close on Sept. 16. 

As for the retreat, Nettles said she hopes it pushes students to continue with the program beyond their first year. 

“The main benefit for me is the woman SPARK has made me and the potential SPARK saw in me,” Nettles said. “My freshman year in Carolina was really hard because it was a really big culture shock. SPARK welcomed me with open arms. They never let me go.” 

For more information, visit SPARK’s Instagram page


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