Over many years of involvement with the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Donald and Joy Sparks have seen numerous talented students mature into successful scientists. Now, they say, they want to do even more to help that process by establishing a graduate fellowship in soil science.
Don Sparks helped build "from scratch" the University's soil science program, now considered one of the best in the world. A familiar face to many alumni, he is chairperson of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences and T.A. Baker Professor of Soil Chemistry.
His wife, Joy, CHEP '73, is state Cooperative Extension coordinator for 4-H and youth development.
Many of the quality undergraduates they've seen at UD, with students from other undergraduate institutions, became graduate soil science students under Don Sparks' mentorship. Some have gone on to receive prestigious fellowships, awards and dissertation prizes for their work. Others have developed outstanding careers in academia, government and industry worldwide.
"A defining mark of any research institution is the quality of its graduate programs," Don Sparks says. "However, it's very competitive to recruit good grad students. The best students receive many offers that often include financial support for their studies. UD is up against institutions with impressive fellowship programs--those are the ones that attract the top students."
The Sparkses saw an opportunity to improve funding for soil science graduate students and approached Joe Bradley, the College's development director, with an idea. They offered to make a leadership gift of $25,000 to launch the Donald L. and Joy G. Sparks Graduate Fellowship in Soil Science. The proposal included a challenge to their colleagues, friends, former students and corporations that have supported soil research programs in the past: Help fulfill the $50,000 minimum requirement necessary to endow the fellowship.
"Graduate student fellowships are often overlooked when donors consider providing scholarship support for students," Bradley says. "With their gift to fund a graduate fellowship in soil science, Don and Joy Sparks are filling a real need.
"Alumni and friends have confidence in giving to a program such as the Sparks Fellowship fund, which is growing steadily. They appreciate that faculty and staff like Don and Joy feel strongly enough about a UD education to give their personal support."
Soil science graduate Jack Rechcigl, AG '82, professor of soil science at the University of Florida, was alerted to the Sparks Fellowship challenge by the UD Alumni Association. He made personal appeals to his fellow soil science alumni, urging them to add their support. "I think it's important to help future students," Rechcigl says. "How better than by contributing to their education?
"If not for Don Sparks, I would not have gone on to earn my doctoral degree in soil science. He was one of the most influential people in my career, encouraging me all along the way." Rechcigl now is director of the University of Florida's Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Bradenton, Fla.
Another former student, Ted Carski, AG '87PhD, also credits Don Sparks with his career success.
"Don encouraged me to apply for a position at DuPont--actually, he insisted on it!--and that turned out to be a defining career move," says Carski, now a research manager at DuPont. "He was my major professor for my [doctoral] dissertation, and I respect him both as a person and as a mentor."
After Bradley contacted him about the fellowship fund, Carski says he made a gift "so I could speak from a first-person perspective to other potential donors."
"I believe in giving something back," Carski says, "and this was a great opportunity to show my respect for Don Sparks. I'm also glad to support the cause--providing education to worthy students. I received fellowship support at UD, and this is my chance to help other students to study with Don."
According to Bradley, faculty, staff and alumni support for their institution's fund-raising efforts encourages corporations to invest, as well. "It's a sign that we believe in ourselves and care about our students," he says. "Cooperation between academia and industry benefits each."
The Sparkses see the fund as an investment, too, and a way to give something tangible to the University and the College.
To make a gift to the Sparks Graduate Fellowship in Soil Science fund, or to learn about other opportunities for giving to the College, contact Bradley at (302) 831-2501.
--Marianne Kirby Rhodes