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 Ringe 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 Ringe. 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 even 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.”