Interview by Mariaclara Zazzaro
Professor Julie Sparks has been an instrumental part of CommUniverCity’s Writing Partners program for the last two years; her English 1A and 1B students have provided hundreds of college pen pals to elementary students in central San José. She first heard of the program at a conference in the summer of 2013, and thought it sounded interesting. Little did she know that two months later she would be coordinating over 100 pen pals! Despite the high volume of students, Sparks has never wavered in her passion for the program.
Her favorite part of Writing Partners is seeing her students’ faces light up when they receive a letter from their elementary school pen pal. “It’s a lot like handing out Valentine’s Day cards,” she observes, “which means you really don’t want anyone to feel left out.” SJSU student and former Writing Partner Tracie Tanner agrees. “My favorite part about being a writing partner was getting the letters from someone who was younger. Every time I opened a letter it was like I was traveling back in time talking to a younger friend of mine.”
Over the semesters, Sparks has been bowled over the level of thought and detail many students put into their letters, often including intricate artwork, sketches, and collages. “I feel like writing to children helped open up my creativity,” says Tanner. “When I would see what my partner wrote to me I felt like I had to keep up all the time. Like for instance, my partner wrote about how she had invisible muscles all the time and how strong she was or how big they were. I felt like I could come up with some crazy things to write too and it became extremely entertaining.”
But the highlight of the program is the culminating event, when the pen pals finally meet face to face after months of written correspondence. The event includes a tour of the SJSU campus, which Sparks intentionally designs to be as multi-faceted as possible. “I want them to see the art building, to see skateboarders on campus. I want them to see that college isn’t just about getting a good job, it’s an experience unto itself where you can explore and learn new things.”
Working with elementary school children was another unexpected revelation for Sparks. “It really gave me a sense of what the pipeline was like [for SJSU].” Sparks noticed that children today seem to have far fewer resources at their disposal than she did as a child, and that a struggling student was much more likely to fall irreversibly behind in school. Studies have shown a strong correlation between elementary school reading scores and incarceration rates, which is why it is critically important to instill good reading and writing habits in young children. “If you can get them interested in something, that changes everything,” says Sparks. “That’s one thing that Harry Potter does really well; it presents school as something to aspire to. There’s also a scene in the movie Big Hero 6, where the big brother tricks his little brother into coming to his lab. The little brother would never have gone on his own, but once he gets there he is completely in love with science.” This scene exemplifies what Writing Partners is striving to achieve. Sparks often tries to pair pen pals who share the same name in order to reinforce the possibility that the younger child could one day go to college.
Writing Partners is an important component of CommUniverCity’s mission to instill a college-going culture in San Jose. We are truly indebted to Professor Sparks for her dedication to what has become one our flagship programs.