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Our Team

Sarah Hillyer, PhD, Director


Sarah Hillyer is an international sports consultant with more than twenty years of experience. She works to promote peace, empowerment, and diplomacy for girls, women, refugees, and persons with disabilities around the world.

Hillyer has worked in more than fifteen countries on four continents, with the majority of her efforts spent developing sports programs with Muslim women in the Middle East. The 2009 Eva Mag’s Woman of the Year and the 2011 Generations for Peace Post-Doctoral Fellow, Hillyer is recognized as one of the leading practitioners in the field of sport for development and peace.

At the center, Hillyer writes grants, crafts curriculum, and develops applied research projects that promote peace and inclusivity for all through sport. She also serves as the lead coordinator on the US Department of State’s Global Sports Mentoring Program initiative, which has hosted more than 400 youth athletes, women’s empowerment and disability rights advocates from more than seventy countries on sports-based exchanges.

Hillyer received her PhD from the University of Tennessee in sport sociology and also a master’s degree in sport psychology from Murray State University. Hillyer completed her undergraduate work in sport management at Liberty University, where she also played basketball.

Ashleigh Huffman, PhD, Assistant Director


Ashleigh Huffman is the co-founder and assistant director of the Center for Sport, Peace, & Society. To date, she has worked with more than 10,000 global sports leaders from 72 countries to promote positive social change.

Employing a train-the-trainers model, Huffman leverages the power of sport and education to develop leaders, who then directly impact local communities with their platform and passion for change. Currently, she works in tandem with the US Department of State and espnW on the Global Sports Mentoring Program, a program that was named by the Public Diplomacy Council as one of the ten best diplomatic accomplishments in the world in 2013. 

Additionally, Huffman serves as lead faculty for the VOLeaders Academy, a leadership development program for student-athletes formed in partnership with the University of Tennessee Athletics Department and the Center for Leadership and Service. This program equips student-athletes to more globally-minded, socially-conscious citizens through coursework, community development projects, and an international service-learning immersion. This program was named by NASPA as a Gold Award Winner of Excellence in 2016. 

Huffman’s research interests lie in the intersections of sport, gender, peace, and leadership, as well as service-learning and social change. She received her PhD from the University of Tennessee in sport sociology and also holds a master’s degree in sport management from UT. Huffman completed her undergraduate work in exercise science at Eastern Kentucky University, where she was twice named co-captain of the women’s basketball team.

Alicia Malnati, PhD

27579334531_76038af4f0_kAlicia Hatcher Malnati (or “Dr. Hatch”) is an associate research and media coordinator for the center. In addition to supporting research and monitoring and evaluation processes with CSPS, she oversees the center’s media presence, creates digital content for programs, and helps set the vision for the center’s long-term strategy. She also teaches an online course on gender and sport in the University of Missouri’s positive coaching master’s program. Before coming to the center, Malnati worked in student–athlete academic services for four years. Her research interests include women’s empowerment and the intersection of sport and community development. Malnati received her PhD from the University of Missouri in educational, school, and counseling psychology, holds a master’s degree in educational leadership and policy analysis, and a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She was a member of Mizzou’s gymnastics team.

Carolyn Spellings, PhD

27553036392_ee3773c77b_kCarolyn Spellings is the monitoring and evaluation coordinator for the center. Her primary tasks are to conduct on-going project evaluations, create reports for internal and external use, and conduct research to advance the field of sport for development and peace. When she is not writing or collecting data, Spellings works with graduate and undergraduate interns to expose them to the research process. Spellings has more than ten years of experience conducting international and cross-cultural research, with most of that work among populations in the Middle East. Spellings received her PhD from the University of Tennessee in child and family studies and holds master’s and bachelor’s degrees from the same department.

Brian Canever


Brian Canever is the digital media coordinator for the center. In addition to creating and managing content for websites and social media channels, he is the principal writer for feature stories, blog posts, newsletters, and contributions to other media partners. Prior to working for the center, Canever interned at ESPN as a bilingual production researcher and wrote for publications including The Knoxville MercuryKnoxville News Sentinel, The Daily Times of Maryville, Bleacher Report and Soccer Without Limits. He continues freelancing for media outlets and teaches a sports reporting course in the UT School of Journalism and Electronic Media. Canever earned a master’s degree in communication and information from the University of Tennessee and has a bachelor’s degree in Latin American and Latino studies from William Paterson University.

Cherry Brewer, PhD

Cherry Brewer is the hospitality program coordinator for the center. She initially began as a 2016 summer intern, while completing her PhD. In 2017, she successfully defended her dissertation, The Impact of Restaurant Review Website Attributes on Consumers’ Internal States and Behavioral Response, and received her doctorate in hospitality management. A native of Thailand, Brewer has more than 15 years of experience studying and working  internationally and in cross-cultural environments. She assists the center in implementing the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP). Her duties including program organization, logistics, and coordinating with mentors and delegates.

Rainey Johns

27579380741_488f9b5574_kRainey Johns is a program assistant for the center. In addition to her full-time job as the director of the Versailles-Woodford County Parks & Recreation Department in Kentucky, Johns assists with logistics, budgets, and record-keeping. She has worked with Hillyer for more than twenty years, traveling to the Middle East and North Africa to coach softball, soccer, basketball, and adaptive sports. Johns earned bachelor’s degrees in recreation and psychology from Campbellsville University, where she also played on the softball team and was goalkeeper on the first women’s soccer team at the university.

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