November 23, 2009 — Tyler Spencer, a 2008 graduate of the University of Virginia, has received a Rhodes Scholarship.
Rhodes Scholarships, valued at between $50,000 to $175,000, fully fund two or three years of study, including tuition and living expenses, at the University of Oxford in England, and may allow funding in some instances for four years.
Spencer, 23, graduated from the College of Arts & Sciences with a degree in international health and sustainable development, a self-designed major that was equal parts foreign affairs, anthropology and biological and environmental sciences. After graduation, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he founded and directs Athletes United for Social Justice, a not-for-profit organization that trains college athletes to be HIV educators.
Spencer was one of 32 U.S. Rhodes scholars, selected from among 217 finalists.
"This feels surreal," Spencer said after winning. "It was an amazing experience just meeting with the other Rhodes candidates."
Spencer, a Staunton native, will pursue a master's degree in evidence-based social intervention, which he said would help him evaluate the effectiveness of his own organization.
"I thought the scholarship would put me in a place to learn from amazing people and ultimately make a greater impact on the world," he said.
Spencer, who has been involved with sports most of his life, said he deferred admission to Harvard's School of Public Health to launch Athletes United, a concept he developed after working on HIV education with athletes in South Africa.
"I wanted to take my passion for sports and do something bigger with it," he said.
His program is designed to help Washington youth, who he says are experiencing incidences of HIV infection greater than those of much of Africa. He said this effort also helps the athletes, many of whom will not become professionals and may seek careers in non-profit organizations.
Spencer said it was difficult to get his organization started, because donors were skeptical of what he could accomplish.
"There were a lot who wanted to second-guess me," he said. "But this something I am passionate about and I knew it would work."
Spencer's drive in pursuing his passion has impressed one of his mentors at U.Va.
"Tyler is a young man who used his time here to craft his own education, and what he has managed to do with it since is very impressive," said Robert Swap, a research associate professor in the department of Environmental Sciences, who helped Spencer design his course of studies as an undergraduate.
He said Spencer pursues things in which he believes. "He is motivating people and leading people in a responsible way. This exemplifies Jefferson's ideal of useful knowledge in action," he said. "I think getting a Rhodes is a fitting tribute to his efforts. He will be a mover and shaker because he is working toward his ideals."
While at U.Va., Spencer received a Morris K. Udall Scholarship, was a Lawn resident, an Echols Scholar and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Spencer twice won Harrison Undergraduate Research grants, and researched the impact of organized sports on HIV prevention in South Africa. He also spent a year conducting research in Washington, D.C., at both the African Wildlife Foundation and Sports for Life, a partnership of UNAIDS and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.
He organized a cross-country cycling trip to benefit those affected by Hurricane Katrina, and was active in tennis and crew. He was a walk-on with the Georgetown varsity crew team, and helped coach tennis at Gallaudet University, a Washington school for the deaf, where he used the sign language he learned in his first two years at U.Va.
"I am so happy that Tyler has been recognized with this honor," said Lucy Russell, director of the Center for Undergraduate Excellence. "Tyler is a remarkable person who combines a passion for social justice with a love of sports."
Russell said Spencer has already made a tremendous difference in many people's lives and predicted he would be influential in the future.
"Tyler is a wonderful example of a student who made the most of the many opportunities available at the University of Virginia," she said. "I know he will be just as engaged at Oxford as he was at U.Va. and will benefit enormously from this extraordinary experience."
Spencer is the 46th U.Va. student to receive a Rhodes Scholarship. Created in 1902 in the will of Cecil Rhodes, British philanthropist and African colonial pioneer, the scholarships are awarded on the basis of high academic achievement, integrity, a spirit of unselfishness, respect for others, potential for leadership and physical vigor.