Mother and Daughter Share Rare Bond as Whitinger Scholars and Ball State Honors College Graduates
Robin Lamott Sparks, ’89, and her daughter Sydney Sparks, ’23, share a special bond: Both are Ball State University Honors College graduates who earned a Whitinger Scholarship—the top Honors College award program at the University.
The Whitinger Scholarship is the signature scholarship of Honors College and the most prestigious awarded by Ball State. It supplements Ball State’s Presidential Scholarship to provide full tuition, required fees, and on-campus room and board for eight new Honors College students of exceptional potential each year. This scholarship was established in honor of Dr. Ralph J. Whitinger, a 1929 graduate who served many years as the first president of the Ball State University Foundation.
Whitinger Scholars are admitted to the University based mainly on their intellectual competency, success, and demonstrated leadership.
Robin’s Path as a Whitinger Scholar
For Robin Lamott Sparks, the Whitinger Scholarship made a huge difference and allowed her to participate in opportunities that may have been financially out of reach otherwise, she said.
“I got many opportunities that I wouldn’t have received otherwise if it hadn’t been for the Honors program and the tight-knit community we were,” Robin added. “I’ve stayed connected with many fellow Whitingers and professors and still call them friends.”
Dr. Arno Wittig was dean of the Honors College when Robin attended. He described her as adventurous. For example, she undertook a new form of study at Oxford College through the program run by the Honors College, and she served as a link between disparate groups on campus. Robin carved her own path.
“She has approached life with zest, inquiry, and, as far as I can tell, little fear,” said Dr. Wittig. “I am happy to this day to think of her not only as one of the outstanding students who went through the Honors College during my tenure but also as someone who is still my friend today. I was never sure what might happen next with Robin, but whatever it was, it was likely to be both interesting and entertaining.”
Robin, a History major, has had a varied career. She worked for the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, NASA, and the FBI in Washington, D.C., for ten years before moving to Connecticut. Recently, she ran End Hunger Connecticut, a non-profit organization that is the only statewide policy and advocacy organization fighting food insecurity in Connecticut, and served on the committee that coordinated statewide activities to combat hunger at the height of the COVID-19 crisis. She credits the Honors College with building her confidence to pursue such endeavors.
“I had several professors that really pushed me, and I got really involved in campus activities,” said Robin. “I think I gained a lot of confidence because I didn’t have as much confidence in high school.”
Sydney’s Path as a Whitinger Scholar
With her talent and academic acuity, Sydney Sparks, a Political Science major who minored in Spanish, had her choice of schools, many of which were in her home state of Connecticut. Among her top picks were George Washington in D.C., and Smith College, a small historically women’s college in Massachusetts; but Ms. Sparks ultimately chose to be a Cardinal. Ms. Sparks was obviously aware of Ball State because of her mother and Robin’s continued support of the University, but she came to the decision on her own.
“I chose Ball State partially because of the generosity of the Whitinger Scholarship but also because the Honors College was a small community within a big campus experience,” Sydney explained. “And I loved the campus.”
Robin Sparks shared gratifying moments at Sydney’s first Whitinger Scholar experiences in her first year.
“At orientation, Sydney went to make her schedule and was randomly scheduled with Arno Wittig. In their conversation, they discovered that I knew him well. Then, Sydney was seated next to Warren Vanderhill (Provost Emeritus) at her first Whitinger dinner. I interviewed with him for my Whitinger. So, that was kind of fun for both of them, I think, like, ‘Oh my god! We knew your mom!’” Robin said, with a laugh. “That was fun to hear. I know it was for her because she got to hear stories about me from their perspective. I think it was just really delightful. They all got to see kind of a full circle.”
Reflecting on her last four years at Ball State, Sydney also appreciates the smaller, tight-knit community feel of the Honors College and the dedicated faculty.
“I loved the small classes, the relationships with faculty, and the community with other students who are passionate about learning,” Sydney said. “I got the opportunity to take really interesting humanities courses with professors who were passionate about what they were teaching.
“The Honors College faculty have been wonderful over the last four years,” she continued. “They have always made an effort to really get to know their students and their interests beyond the classroom setting.”
And just like with her mother, the Honors College dean, Dr. John Emert, knows Sydney personally and has taken an interest in her work as a student.
“Sydney’s been an active, engaged member of the Honors College community,” said Dr. Emert.
“I am particularly impressed with her Honors College senior thesis, which presents an articulate comparison of the pro-choice movement of the 1970s and ‘80s and the current pro-choice movement, looking specifically at how social media has changed how information is spread and how it has broken barriers based on race and class. She has a bright future in whatever path she chooses.”
Sydney officially earned her degree on May 6, taking part in Ball State’s Commencement celebrations, and will no doubt find a fulfilling career, just as her mother did. A proud mom, Robin was in the audience at Commencement watching as Sydney crossed the stage.
“We’re both Whitinger Scholars,” Robin said. “But she [Sydney] has her own niche, different from mine. And I can’t wait to see what she does.”