The world learned Jesse Sparks’ story in June when he tweeted two pictures: one of himself with his cart of cleaning products, the other of his new diploma.
During his three years in graduate school here, Sparks studied clinical mental health counseling while also working full-time as a custodian of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, the high school he graduated from in 2008.
Back to square one
A good student and a star athlete, Sparks attended Northeastern University on a full football scholarship. Although the program was discontinued his sophomore year, the school honored his scholarship and Sparks graduated with a degree in criminal justice. But, he struggled to find a job. That was when he ended up back at Rindge, this time with Clorox instead of cleats.
“I was embarrassed, and some of my old teachers or teachers who recognized me would give looks of puzzlement about how I had ended up where I was. ‘Didn’t you go to Northeastern?’ ‘Weren’t you going to college?’ ‘I thought you was gonna be a star?’ some would quip. It sucked,” Sparks remembers.
“Depressed and angry,” he struggled through his first year back at Rindge. But he found his way when Sparks’ former guidance counselor, Lorraine Suarez Davis, urged him to become a school counselor himself. It took some convincing, but Sparks began to reflect on his own experiences – feeling he couldn’t confide in school counselors as a kid and being turned away from a counseling center when he felt depressed as a college student.
“We hear often, ‘Be the person you needed when you was younger,’ but it really hit home during the application process, and I became immersed in how I could be a great counselor and role model for my future students,” says Sparks.
A fresh start
Wanting to be debt-free, he saved up $10,000 from his paychecks that year. The following fall he enrolled in the clinical mental health counseling master’s program while continuing to mop floors, clean bathrooms, and empty industrial sized trash cans at the high school.
Living at home with his mom, he was sometimes able to devote the bulk of his paycheck to tuition. He also squirreled away a full week’s paycheck, $500, to start the Jesse Sparks Scholarship, awarded each year to a Rindge senior with the top essay on overcoming adversity. He awarded the fourth scholarship this spring. Additionally, Sparks and his friends started a scholarship to give one student from his neighborhood $1,000 toward college.
He did all of this while working incredibly long hours.
“I haven't slept for three years.”
As a full-time student at Lesley, Sparks balanced weekend and night classes and his full-time job. To make it all work, Sparks used up all of his vacation and sick time as well as his work breaks. He later added his unpaid counseling internship to that, which was also at Rindge. Sparks would arrive in business clothes and leave in Dickies.
“There are few people like Jesse,” says Professor Dalia Llera, Sparks' advisor who first met Sparks when he interviewed for the counseling program. “He is a compassionate, selfless, strong and resilient individual who is determined to follow his dreams while offering pathways for youth to reach their own.”
Sparks kept up his grades, graduating with a cumulative 3.75 GPA, even though his “stress and anxiety were at an all-time high” while he studied, worked, and interned. Quitting wasn’t an option, though. Sparks dug into his counseling courses, taking the lessons to heart.
“I come from an environment where you don’t talk about your feelings because it’s seen as a weakness. Lesley started to break down that wall within me,” he says.
Sparks’ embarrassment also dissipated as he began to see himself as an example to kids who grew up in the projects like he did.
“I used it as a teaching tool for the students,” he says. “I told them sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do to get to where you want.”
Sparks realized teenagers want to hear “I feel you” not “I feel for you.”
Like other students at Rindge, he has experienced setbacks. His father died when he was young; his stepfather was incarcerated for trafficking drugs; and all of his brothers have been arrested. Sparks was determined not to go down that path.
His life story gave him more credibility with students says Michael Tubinis, the Rindge guidance counselor who supervised Sparks during his internship.
“He is quite honest about how he got to where he was. It gave him an immediate ability to bond with the students,” Tubinis says.
During the internship, Sparks had a caseload of 30 students and also co-led a group of struggling junior boys with Tubinis. He called parents and worked with teachers, always displaying the positivity and energy needed for the job.
“He will be tremendous at this work. We need more people like him in the field – more people that have the positive energy and have lived some life,” Tubinis says.
Tweets and retweets
On May 20, Sparks' determination and hard work were rewarded when he accepted his diploma in front of thousands at Lesley’s commencement.
“It was a surreal moment because it had been a long journey for the past three years,” reflects Sparks.
When he tweeted out his accomplishment, it went viral in ways fledgling YouTubers only dream of. Sparks went to sleep with a few hundred likes, and he woke up to a dead phone – all of the notifications overnight had drained his battery. It’s been liked by nearly 70,000 people, and retweeted by 17,000.
He drew the attention of major news outlets and was featured in the Boston Globe and ABC News.
The newly minted counselor isn’t looking for more fame. Instead he’s spending the summer as the co-director of an academic enrichment program to prepare rising ninth graders for high school. He’s also looking to put his degree to work in a full-time guidance counselor position.
Sparks said he would like to go out of state to get more experience, but eventually wants to return to his hometown and even the high school where he’s already put in tons of sweat equity.
“Eventually I would love to be a guidance counselor there and come full circle."