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Taking the risk

David Spence (’19) shares his journey from high school dropout to working for the UN — spoiler — Mount Allison plays a big role
By: Shannon Wilmot

At 25, David Spence wanted a change. He quit his job selling cars in Hamilton, ON and after a Google search and quick road trip to visit Sackville, enrolled at Mount Allison. Spence describes the decision as “burning the ships” and “cashing in all his chips,” leaving no opportunity to go back or change his mind. For Spence, the only way was forward. 

University was a particularly daunting decision because few in Spence’s family or social circle had experience with post-secondary education.  

“I certainly didn’t take the traditional path to Mount A,” says Spence, who explains his educational background included getting kicked out of school in Grade 11 and having to take time off before changing schools to complete Grade 12.  

“I remember walking down King Street in Sackville on my first day of classes and saying to myself ‘okay, you just have to make it through the first day’ and then that became the first week, the first month, etc.” 

Four years later, Spence was graduating with a first-class honours degree in religious studies and political science. The self-professed “least likely person to graduate” was selected as a Mackenzie King Scholar and was off to SOAS (University of London) for a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Politics.

“My master’s degree ended up being the equivalent of first or second year at Mount A in terms of workload and difficulty. Mount Allison really pushed and challenged me academically and even though SOAS was my dream grad school, I’m infinitely prouder of earning my Mount Allison degree.”  

When not spending long hours studying in the R.P. Bell Library, Spence had also served as Mount Allison student ombudsman and Model UN president, worked as a TA for multiple courses, and earned various scholarships. He earned a research grant to spend six months in Australia working with Aboriginal groups and activists and conducting research for his honours thesis comparing the Indigenous residential school systems of Canada and Australia.  

“There’s the whole typical Mount A narrative of community and family and that it’s such a special place, but here’s the thing — it’s all true,” says Spence. “I don’t know how else to say it. From the friends I made to professors and staff like Rev. Perkin, James Devine, Dave Thomas, Fiona Black, and Adam Christie, who all played really pivotal roles for me. It was such a formative experience in making me who I am and really shaping and molding me as a professional, as an academic, as an adult. The relationships I made at Mount Allison really made me the person I am today.”

During his time at Mount Allison, Spence zeroed in on a career with the UN. For the past year, he has worked as an Anti-Corruption Specialist for the UN’s Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Southeast Asia and the Pacific region. Spence and his colleagues help train government officials and law enforcement agencies in various countries on best practices in anti-corruption. 

When Spence speaks with current students, he tells them that securing a position with the UN is anything but easy. His own journey included a six-month unpaid internship, hundreds of job applications, countless interviews, and plenty of anxiety and second-guessing life decisions.  

“I spent five years saying I was going to make it to the UN — it nearly killed me, but I did it.” 

Spence cautions students to be realistic and understand that working for the UN comes with huge pros and cons, such as working with the coolest people in the world and travelling to places you would never otherwise visit, versus little job security, a huge bureaucracy, and being prepared to take whatever job opportunities become available, wherever they are in the world. 

Spence is based out of Bangkok, Thailand and routinely travels to South Korea, Fiji, Australia, and other countries in the region. He says he is enjoying his work and has a great supervisor and colleagues and remains focused on long-term plans. A PhD is one life goal, as Spence is interested in examining how peoples’ religious beliefs inform their responses to emergencies and natural disasters.

Another plan he is considering is buying a house in Sackville.   

“I miss Sackville and Mount Allison every day and I really like the idea of having roots in a place that was so special to me,” says Spence. “Mount A is where I became the best version of myself.”  

Spence figures it’s also a good investment, providing his future children somewhere to live when they go to Mount Allison.