Focus | From the Queen City to Oxford

Staunton native named Rhodes Scholar

Story by Chris Graham

Many, one would assume, do it for the prestige. Tyler Spencer applied for a Rhodes Scholarship as a matter of practicality.

“I have wanted to get a masters to strengthen my nonprofit work, but I have been frustrated by how much most good programs cost,” said Spencer, a 2008 University of Virginia graduate and Staunton native who in November was named a Rhodes Scholar.

Spencer, 23, a graduate of R.E. Lee High School in Staunton, settled after his graduation from UVa. in Washington, D.C., where he founded and directs a nonprofit, Athletes United for Social Justice, that trains college athletes to be HIV/AIDS educators. That part of his life came about as a result of work he did in Africa training pro soccer players to be mentors to youths.

“When I learned that the AIDS rate in D.C. was so high – worse that many sub-Saharan African countries – I got excited by the idea of training Division I athletes to do the same. I knew that they could have a huge impact on youth, and I also hoped that a program like this could benefit them the way my experience in Africa had benefited me,” Spencer said.

Spencer was nominated as a candidate for the Rhodes Scholar program by UVa. He was one of the 32 Scholars picked from a field of 217 finalists from across the United States.

“I felt really lucky to make it through, because at the final selection weekend I could see how any of the other candidates could have been given the scholarship,” said Spencer, modestly, considering his lengthy resume, which includes a year of research at the African Wildlife Foundation and Sports for Life, a partnership of UNAIDS and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, his effort to organize a cross-country cycling trip to benefit those affected by Hurricane Katrina and his work as a volunteer tennis coach at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf located in the nation’s capital.

Spencer will focus his studies at Oxford on a program in evidence-based social intervention, a new degree program at the university. He will be studying the theory and methodology of community-level social- and behavioral-change programs with the goal of being able to apply the theoretical constructs to policy and practice in his nonprofit work back in the States.

Spencer had already deferred admission to a grad-level public-health program at Harvard to devote his time to the launch of Athletes United, which approaches social change at the grassroots level.

“It is undeniable that an epidemic like HIV demands the attention of all kinds of stakeholders, and these include athletes, celebrities, wealthy donors, politicians, et cetera,” Spencer said. “Right now, particularly in D.C., there is so much stigma, ignorance and denial about HIV among the poor and the wealthy, the disenfranchised and the powerful. Athletes United engages very visible athletes in breaking that stigma, but it also focuses on critical empowerment of the young people most at-risk for HIV infection. Even though we are dealing with an incredibly serious issue, it’s also cool to see the participants of the program having fun.”


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