In 2015, a portion of the Miller Foundation’s grant to Rollins College supported the school’s tenth annual SPARC (Service Passion Action Rollins College) Day.  SPARC Day is a community engagement event set up specifically for first-year and transfer students during their orientation; however, participants usually include an additional 150-200 returning students, alumni, and faculty and staff members who have caught the vision for passionate service that the day represents.

“SPARC serves a double meaning,” explained Meredith Hein, the director of the Center for Leadership and Community Engagement (CLCE) at Rollins. “It stands for Service Passion Action Rollins College, but we also see it as that very first entry point during orientation that sparks an interest in students and connects them with an idea of what they want to do, be, or become, or what they’re passionate about when they’re at Rollins and beyond.”

Preparation for SPARC Day begins several months prior. As a first step, Rollins faculty submit proposals for Rollins Conference Courses (RCC)—semester-long classes designed to help orient students to campus life. RCCs may be on any number of topics dreamt up by professors, such as food and nutrition, intensive German, the literature of Harry Potter, or making movies.

Next, staff and students in the CLCE office begin contacting community partners in the Orlando area, looking for service opportunities that connect in some small way with the topics of the RCCs.

“It’s not perfect,” Meredith said. “But for the most part, we can find organizations and social impact areas where we can create a connection that will allow the students to understand that when they go to this site, it’s not just a day of service. . . . We’re literally sparking that idea in our first-year students’ minds that we at Rollins are not just about the classroom, that they are going to learn a lot outside the classroom.”

Rollins partnered with thirty different community partners in 2015, and SPARC Day participants served everywhere from a Title I elementary school, to an organization that helps people with cerebral palsy and other motor disabilities, to the Friends of the Wekiva River for environmental cleanup.

This year’s SPARC Day coordinator, Courtney Durbin (’16), has seen a number of positive results come from the service day. She remembers one student telling her about the shock of realizing how many people were living in poverty just down the road from Rollins. That student later returned to her SPARC Day organization to take part in their mentorship program for students in need. This isn’t unusual, Courtney says. Many students return to their serve sites with their RCC classmates and professors to serve again.

“When students come in as a participant and are getting their first experience and their first piece of community engagement, they don’t really know what to expect,” she said. “I think once they go through that and they learn about the difference and the impact they’re making, it changes their perspective. It allows them to become open

Courtney believes the community partners Rollins works with are also positively influenced. Through SPARC Day, Rollins seeks to build mutually beneficial, long-term relationships with local non-profits and organizations. The effort is usually successful, with at least half of community partners returning to partner with Rollins again. The impact doesn’t happen overnight, however.

“We always make the point that your intent has to equal your impact. . . . You have to make sure what you’re doing isn’t just a Band-Aid,” Courtney said. “I think the community really does see that impact, and by slowly showing we’re involved, we

can make an impact even if it’s not instant.”

In the past ten years, Meredith has met many students who say SPARC Day is one of their strongest memories from Rollins. She loves how SPARC Day serves as a jumping off point for many students to find their place at Rollins.

“For us it’s not about whether or not they find their passion that day, it’s about them finding what they want to explore next,” she said. “That might be a fraternity or sorority, that might be our entertainment area on campus, or working for our radio station, but it’s about being surrounded by other students and having conversations about their interests or their passions. That’s SPARC Day.”