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UD professor supports faculty and students through philanthropy

Don Sparks, CANR professor and DENIN director, invests in named professorship, graduate fellowship and scholarship

Donald L. Sparks, Unidel S. Hallock du Pont Chair, and a College of Agriculture and Natural Resources professor and Director of the Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN), has spent more than three decades building a career at the University of Delaware that has influenced the lives of countless students as well as the health of the planet.

Motivated by his passion for helping others and giving back to the University that has given him so much, Sparks recently committed a $1.5 million planned gift through Delaware First: The Campaign for the University of Delaware to support undergraduate and graduate students as well as faculty.

“I owe so much to this university because it’s been my life, my career for almost 40 years now, and UD has been an absolutely fabulous place to be,” said Sparks. “As employees, we have an obligation to give back and support programs and people to make this place even better.”

Through his investment, Sparks will establish the Donald L. and Joy G. Sparks Early Career Professorship in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. This professorship will create a position for a professor in the early stages of their career to teach and conduct research in soil sciences. In addition to recognizing individual talent, professorships help promote the University’s presence and expertise in particular areas of research. This line of thinking resonates with Sparks.

“Establishing professorships is very important in terms of attracting top talent and retaining top faculty, because we often hire great people,” said Sparks. “But the key is once we see how successful they are, we want to keep them. We don’t want to lose them, so I think incentives like these named professorships are essential.”

The remainder of the planned gift will be divided between two existing endowed funds – the Donald L. and Joy G. Sparks Graduate Student Fellowship in Soil Sciences and the Joy Gooden Sparks Scholarship. The Joy Gooden Sparks Scholarship is awarded annually to students matriculated in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources who participate in 4-H.

Mark Rieger, Dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said this gift demonstrates Sparks’ sincere commitment to the college, UD and ultimately student success.

“Dr. Sparks is one of the most successful faculty members in the history of the college, and he has mentored dozens of students who have gone on to incredible careers in academia, agency and industry,” Rieger said. “His generosity and open-hearted willingness to give in so many ways are an inspiration. Not only will his gift help provide resources to recruit and retain faculty, but it also shows how deeply he cares for UD and this college. I am truly grateful to Don for his contributions as a faculty member, administrator, thought leader and supporter.”

In 2011, Sparks established the scholarship in memory of his wife, Joy G. Sparks. Since that time, numerous students and friends have rallied together to make gifts to the fund.

Sparks is driven to honor his late wife by supporting their shared passions. Joy was the state 4-H coordinator for the UD's Cooperative Extension Program before her passing in 2009. A lifelong Delawarean, Joy received a bachelor's degree in home economics from UD in 1973 and later pursued graduate studies. She began her 35-year career in UD's Cooperative Extension Service by first serving as the New Castle County 4-H agent and then as state coordinator. Without her, Sparks says, none of this would have been possible. It was her fondest wish that everyone should have access to a quality education and a chance to build the life they want.

“She was very adamant that everybody had an opportunity to get a college education,” Sparks said. “She wanted there to be scholarship money to support students who desired to come to the University of Delaware, and not only graduate students, but at the undergraduate level, too, because she dealt with a lot of young people over the years. I established that scholarship in her honor to support undergraduate students who had leadership capabilities.”

Sparks and his wife established the Donald L. and Joy G. Sparks Graduate Student Fellowship in Soil Sciences in 2000 to support graduate students in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences performing research associated with DENIN.  For Sparks, the most fulfilling part of his job has been mentoring students over the years.

“If there’s one thing in my career that I’ve enjoyed the most, it’s without any question, advising graduate students,” said Sparks. “It’s exciting to have such bright, young people around you where you see this growth period and they really progress and then they go out and become very successful. There’s a tremendous satisfaction that a faculty member gets out of that position.”

For Sparks, advising, teaching and philanthropy are all about making the world a better place.

“There are some tremendous challenges that we have in the world, but there are also tremendous opportunities,” said Sparks. “It’s very important that we provide funds to support excellent students that get trained and then go out to solve some of these major challenges that we’re facing. We all have great love for this institution and we want to make it better and in order to do that, we need to support it and help it get to the next level.”

About the Delaware First Campaign

Delaware First: The Campaign for the University of Delaware was publicly launched on Nov. 10, 2017. The comprehensive engagement and fundraising campaign will unite Blue Hens across the nation to accelerate UD’s mission of cultivating tomorrow’s leaders, creating solutions to grand challenges, inspiring innovations and transforming lives. The united effort will help create an extraordinary student experience at UD and extend its impact on the region and the world.


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