From Courtney, With Love

Students of the World's globe-trotting founder wishes you were here

Courtney Spence
Courtney Spence (Photo by John Anderson)

Courtney Spence has trotted the globe – perhaps not in the way one might assume a Duke-educated daughter of an advertising magnate would. Instead of burning up Daddy's credit card on party junkets to Phuket, Ibiza, Rio, Amsterdam, or Cancun, Spence's passport is stamped with more sobering locales: Kosovo, the West Bank, Cambodia, Cuba, northern Uganda.

Inspired in 1999 – her sophomore year at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies – at 19, Spence founded Students of the World to combine the best of college study-abroad and cultural immersion programs with what she had learned at Duke: "to use media as a tool for social activism."

"It's not enough to go out and make a documentary," Spence asserts. "It should ideally create social change."

Spence laughs: "I know a lot of students who've studied abroad – went to Spain, hung out in the Irish pub, there are all these hot American girls there .... That's a fun story, but to me, it [underscores the lack of] programs offering to immerse students culturally, while believing in their ability to impact change as young people."

It's no secret that Austin native Spence grew up in an affluent and influential media-savvy environment. Her dad is Roy Spence Jr., co-founder and CEO of GSD&M Idea City, and her mom is Mary Spence, who worked on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

"Dinner table conversations at my house are politically charged," says Spence. And, as one would be correct to assume, politically well-connected. Roy Spence's friendship with a certain Bill Clinton goes back to George McGovern's presidential campaign in 1972. Courtney Spence was profoundly affected by the one-degree connection to the White House throughout her teenage years.

"The concept I had of the Clinton administration was the idea of giving back; that's what I always thought politics was – public service. As I came into my own and started to see things in a global light, I was more struck with the Clintons as individuals. I've always had a raised female consciousness, I guess you could say, and having Hillary Clinton as a role model, personally, professionally, and politically – well, she is about as inspirational as it gets."

After graduation, Spence soaked in her own immersion, working in Sen. Clinton's office and later for Ron Kirk's unsuccessful bid for a Senate seat. She began to understand the realities of politics on her own, away from the family dinner table, and all the while nurtured her little nonprofit that could.

Through Spence's connections, SOW teamed up with the Clinton Global Initiative, Bill Clinton's partnership-facilitating organization that connects nongovernmental organizations working toward common goals with private sector and government help. CGI lends credibility to the student group and, in turn, provides the necessary vetting of nonprofits and programs that apply to work with them. Since 2006, all of the groups that work with SOW have come through CGI. "We carefully select the organizations we work with. There is a list of criteria they have to meet, and then they have to want to work with us. So it's a two-way street."

In the beginning, SOW students shot black-and-white stills, wrote articles, and used a home video camera to document the stories. Now, after 10 years, "our students shoot on HD. They've grown up on Photoshop and Adobe Creative Suite. They were doing Final Cut competitions in middle school; this is the language this generation speaks."

Essentially, SOW acts as a media group for nonprofits, creating documentaries, blogs, photo essays, and other collateral that each of the many NGOs for which they produce may use to promote and further goals.

"The output for socially conscious organizations, what they show investors, is social impact, human lives changed," says Spence. "And those stories aren't so much in numbers as they are in testimonies of how these organizations impacted people on the ground, one on one."

Students learn how to navigate the increasingly thin lines between journalism and public relations, as most projects encompass both. Spence makes no bones about SOW's mandate to promote the successes of its partner groups. "We're trying to provide media that bolsters and helps these organizations that are already doing great work. When we are making editorial decisions on how to shape the story, there is a definitive call to action, to focus on progress and positivity – but without lying. I'm not talking Pollyanna stuff here."

But in this highly mediated process, what responsibility does SOW or Spence herself have to the truth? "We have a responsibility to global truths," she states, "whether it's girls' education, access to health care, social justice-type issues. Personally? I have been to a lot of places. I have a responsibility to the people that I've met to dispel the myths about things that people still don't understand – HIV in Africa, housing in New Orleans, Cambodia after Pol Pot, or clean water in Texas. I mean, there are places in Texas where people can light their taps on fire!

"I think there is a responsibility for people that have had a light turned on in them and are aware of these things to tell other people through ways that make people understand," says Spence, to shed that light, as it were, to change the attitude from "I don't want to hear any more problem stories. I don't need to hear any more war stories in Africa; I just don't," to a call for action.

"I could never see myself outside of this arena of global humanitarian rights and social justice," says the young woman who could have chosen to live a very comfortable world-traveler existence but instead chose the path of great resistance. "I've seen too much."

  • More of the Story

  • Making It Right

    Austin-based Students of the World strives to make it a better one
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