May 22, 2024

The SPARK Conference, Wittenberg University’s take on a professional leadership conference and retreat, will take place this weekend, Sept. 12-13.
Featuring staff, faculty, and alumni keynotes, as well as student-driven workshops, SPARK was initiated through the Office of Student Development. With the help and collaboration of student-planning teams, the conference and the retreat are set to become a reality.
“We’ve kind of flipped the concept on its head, where if you look at other institutions that offer these leadership conferences, its very formal but more lecture-based,” Jon Duraj, associate dean of students for student success and retention, said.
Duraj admitted that the goal was to make the conference more “uniquely Wittenberg,” and set it apart from others by offering “Ted-style keynotes where we bring in some fascinating faculty, staff, [and] young alumni to talk about their experience through storytelling” instead of lectures.
These miniature “Ted-talks” are short, story-based “passion-projects” of faculty, staff, alumni, and students, and they are all grouped around three central ideas: vocation development, connectedness-identity development, and the role of technology.
Eric Roberts, class of 2015, is one of the students presenting his “passion project” during the workshop sessions on Saturday morning. His workshop, Foodworks: Changing Cities Through Agriculture, is based on his thesis and professional goal of being an urban planner, as well as his passion and advocacy for sustainability on campus in the form of a community garden.
“I want to talk a bit about…issues surrounding economic disparity, environmental awareness, and social concerns [that] can all be addressed by this one issue of food,” Roberts said. “It’s what I want to do with the Peace Corps. I’m writing my thesis on community gardening,  and I’m doing an internship with the OSU extension of agriculture to try and bring a garden to Wittenberg and create a gardening club.”
Roberts decided to propose a workshop for SPARK in order to “gather momentum for this gardening club…by talking about this, and maybe giving it a few plugs along the way. I might be able to actually gather some interest in really relevant issues.”
Roberts views the SPARK Conference as a chance to utilize a valuable open forum that would ultimately get his ideas and goals out onto campus.
SPARK will feature not only the “passion projects” of students, but also those of faculty, alumni, and others. Several of the featured keynote speakers include Dr. Katie Warber of the Communication Department, Athletic Director Dr. Gary Williams, and Wittenberg alumni, such as Andrew Steele from the class of 2010, the founder of BLOOM Africa.
The closing keynote, and one of the major events of the conference, according to Duraj, features Josie Ahlquist. Ahlquist is a Higher Education Digital Identity thought leader who is interested in “discovering the intersection of digital communication technologies and leadership development in Higher Education,” according to the SPARK website. She is a blogger, author, speaker, and consultant that Duraj has followed for some time.
“We knew we wanted a keynote speaker centered around technology,” Duraj said. “The idea of digital identity, we’re ever connected, that’s not going away, and so how do you make sense of that as a leader, as a citizen, and how do you use that to assist you and really use it to your advantage.”
The SPARK Conference not only represents an open-forum style campus-wide leadership initiative, but also acts as a chance for students to take part in a professional quality leadership conference.
“One of the ideas,” Duraj said, “is to emulate a professional conference experience because that’s what students are going to be doing in whatever field. There’s always going to be gatherings and conferences. So that’s why we have the registration…just to help with numbers, but also so you can experience this process.”
The ultimate hope, Duraj said of the SPARK Conference, is to “[help] students think differently about their experience and the potential and opportunity they have here at Wittenberg, regardless of if they’re freshmen or seniors. And from there, the options are endless…if something sparks, you can go and explore that.”

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