February 14, 2008 — Tyler S. Spencer, an international health and environmental sustainability major at the University of Virginia, has been named to USA Today's All-USA College Academic team.
The honor, which was announced today, is given annually to outstanding undergraduates. Spencer is one of 20 students on the third team.
Spencer, 21, received a Morris K. Udall Scholarship last spring and has researched the impact of organized sports on HIV prevention in South Africa while a student at U.Va. He spent a year conducting research in Washington, D.C., at both the African Wildlife Foundation and Sports for Life, a partnership of UNAIDS and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.
His self-designed major, which he crafted with help from U.Va. anthropology professor Hanan Sabea and environmental sciences professor Robert J. Swap, is equal parts foreign affairs, anthropology and biological and environmental sciences. Swap was one of the people who nominated Spencer for the USA Today team.
Spencer received two of U.Va.'s Harrison Undergraduate Research grants, and has conducted research in Africa on attitudes that both Westerners and indigenous Africans hold toward the theory and practice of conservation.
"Wildlife protection can't be addressed until basic needs such as health are taken care of," Spencer said. "In northeastern South Africa, there are places where elephants receive better basic services than the people who live right next to them, so it's unrealistic to attempt an environmental intervention in this context. The impact of HIV/AIDS in these same areas is also indescribably devastating, and I saw this as really the most immediate concern."
Spencer wants to balance his passion for sports with his desire to set up and study an HIV prevention program. He is involved in Grassroots Soccer, which educates youths about HIV/AIDS.
Swap describes Spencer as "a young future leader."
"Tyler has shown through his initiative his growing appreciation of how humans interact with the environment," said Swap. Spencer's research and work focuses on "understanding the human dimension of global change and how humans factor into the equation."
This focus led Spencer to change his academic trajectory.
"I came to U.Va. wanting to be a physics major and go to med school," he said. "But just a few weeks of an anthropology course I took during my first year quickly made me realize that cultural fluency is becoming extremely important to the progress of science."
"Tyler is a wonderful example of a U.Va. student with the initiative to look beyond our borders to develop research projects that benefit underserved populations around the world," said Richard L. Guerrant, director of the Center for Global Health, to which Spencer applied for research support.
Spencer, a Lawn resident, is an Echols Scholar, organizer of a cross-country cycling trip to benefit those affected by Hurricane Katrina, and has been 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, D.C., school for the deaf, where he could use the sign language he learned in his first two years at U.Va. He also wants to coach the U.S. National Deaf Tennis Team at their Olympics in 2009.
"Tyler Spencer is an outstanding student," said William M. Wilson, a U.Va. professor of religious studies and dean of the Echols Scholars. "It is widely known that the University excels in academics and public service. This has been confirmed with Tyler's achievements."
Spencer said he has no regrets about working in grassroots and nonprofit organizations instead of pursuing more lucrative endeavors.
"I want a career that gives me fulfillment in knowing I am working toward social justice, not just a fancy car or a huge house," Spencer said.