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Our Team

Sarah Hillyer, PhD, Director


An international sports consultant with more than twenty years of experience, Sarah Hillyer 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.

 Carolyn Spellings, PhD

27553036392_ee3773c77b_kCarolyn Spellings is a research assistant professor and 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 eight 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 content manager for the center. In addition to social media and website management, Canever 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. Canever recently 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.

Alicia Malnati, PhD

27579334531_76038af4f0_kAlicia Malnati (or “Dr. Hatch”) is a graphic designer and program assistant for the center. In addition to designing reports and materials for the center’s programs, she assists with program organization. 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 also a member of Mizzou’s gymnastics team.

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 recordkeeping. 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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