Perseverance, Determination, and Grit - Journey to Become a Mental Health Counselor
Interview with Jesse Sparks, Massachusetts Licensed School Counselor
After graduating from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in 2008, Jesse Sparks attended Northeastern University on a football scholarship, majoring in criminal justice with hopes of become a law enforcement officer or lawyer. Between semesters at Northeastern, Jesse took up employment for Cambridge Public Schools iFrom n the facilities department. Upon graduation from Northeastern University, Jesse was offered employment as a custodian with Cambridge Public Schools which he accepted while drawing up next step plans for his career.
From his popularity in high school as a star athlete to cleaning toilets, Jesse grew depressed and angry and was embarrassed when some of his former teachers would recognize him in the halls. After brushing off several suggestions from his former guidance counselor to pursue a career in counseling, Jesse decided to research more into the field. Upon reflection on hearing that individuals should become the person they needed when they were younge, Jesse really became immersed in pursuing a career in counseling, ready to give back what he was not afforded.
Jesse balanced his custodial position as he pursued coursework at Lesley University in clinical mental health counseling. When the time came to enroll in internship experiences, he found that his schedule was delicately balanced between internship experiences at an alternative high school in the morning and work at night, with some variations throughout the week to accommodate academics.
Jesse Sparks on his students seeing him as a guidance counselor and custodian: “Instead of being embarrassed I used it as a teaching tool for the students. They saw me as Mr. Sparks the guidance counselor intern dressed in brooks brothers during the day and then Mr. Sparks the custodian after school dressed in dirty blue dickies. I told them sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do to get to where you want. For me it’s cleaning toilets, for them it may be study hall, or detention, or homework center or staying after with a teacher etc. I used my last couple years as a custodian to teach about work ethic and dedication and determination. The kids received it well and I felt well respected by them. It also helped that I came from the same projects and areas they did. I could relate because I was there which I think is huge in building rapport especially with teens. They want “I feel you” more than “I feel for you”.
To support students who were like him, Jesse began two scholarships, one in his name which requires an essay at which a senior overcame adversity and how it has helped them to become who they are today. The other scholarship is awarded to students who came from the same neighborhood that he did.
Currently Jesse Sparks is seeking a position as a school counselor in a high school and to work as a clinician outside of schools - eventually leading to his own private/group practice.
[OnlineCounselingPrograms.com] Your story has made significant waves in the news and on social media because of the dedication you display in working 16 hours a day as a school counselor intern and attending graduate school. Can you walk us through what motivated you to pursue a career in clinical mental health counseling?
[Jesse Sparks] Long story short, I didn’t really have anyone I could confide in through high school. I appeared fine on the surface didn’t show any warning signs but I was depressed. In college, the same. I went to the school’s counseling center twice and they turned me away both times because they were full and I wasn’t suicidal. I reached out to an outside therapist and her first questions was how can I pay for her services. I just realized that I didn’t want anyone to feel the way I felt. I don’t wanna turn people away or feel like they have no one to turn to.
[OnlineCounselingPrograms.com] How did you best manage/balance your time between your job and graduate studies?
[Jesse Sparks] I’m not sure if there was a “best” balance. I just was doing what I had to do to accomplish what I needed to accomplish. While many of my classes were over the weekend there were many others that were during my work time. I worked 2pm-10:30pm and often times my classes were at 7pm or 4pm so there were times when I would have to take half a night off from work (unpaid) or leave (unpaid) then come back to finish my shift. I realized the importance of self-care whether it was when I had a few minutes, a few hours, or a day or two to myself. Working out was a huge stress reliever for me. Distracting myself, whether it was playing online video games with a friend in Chicago, reading, watching Netflix, quiet time or escaping to the bar to people watch, was helpful for me. Thinking about all the money I was putting in and the students I would have in the future were also great motivators for balancing my time in the right way.
[OnlineCounselingPrograms.com] In various articles about your success, you’ve mentioned Lorraine Suarez-Davis and Dan Wethersby, two school counselors who supported you during your high school years. In what ways have your school counselors helped you achieve your current success as a clinical mental health counselor?
[Jesse Sparks] Those two were my high school guidance counselors. Although, I didn’t have to go through the “traditional” college process because I was being recruited for sports, I appreciated their help with picking classes, advising me on what to expect in college, as well as supporting me even when my grades weren’t the best. They were very encouraging. When I became an intern with Michael Tubinis, who was also very instrumental in my development as a school counselor, it was awesome to be able to now be in meetings with all of them and pick their brains on situations and also observe how they all approach the work. I was fortunate to be able to now have those two perspectives, one as a former student and now one as a colleague.
[OnlineCounselingPrograms.com] In the ABC article describing your educational journey, you said of your time in high school, “I really wish I could have someone that I could talk to, someone who looked like me.” Why do you think it is important for students to be able to relate to someone who physically resembles them?
[Jesse Sparks] It’s about comfort, it’s about the ability to relate, having credibility. My high school counselors were great people, great at their job but at the same time they are middle-aged Caucasians, middle class whereas I’m a young African American in the projects. They can’t relate to the daily struggles of just that identity, let alone with all the issues and things that come along with it. I’ve found both as a student and as a counselor that it matters. It matters having someone that looks like you and can say “I feel you” rather than “I feel for you”.
[OnlineCounselingPrograms.com] What can you tell us about the most rewarding or surprising part of your four-year journey to becoming a mental health counselor?
[Jesse Sparks] It was rewarding to be able to be received so well by my students the last two years at my internship. It affirmed that I am doing the right thing, that I am where I am supposed to be.
[OnlineCounselingPrograms.com] Conversely, was there any aspect of your journey that you found particularly challenging? If so, what was it?
[Jesse Sparks] It was challenging just navigating through it all. Balancing my time, taking unpaid time so losing money, completing papers the morning of, pulling all nighters knowing I have internship and work the next day and the teasing and snide comments from those at work who didn’t think I could do it.
[OnlineCounselingPrograms.com] What advice would you give to other aspiring counselors who face similar challenges as you did?
[Jesse Sparks] Don’t give up. Remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. Someone out there is depending on you and you haven’t even met them yet.