Campus & Community

Meet Linda Spencer

7 min read

Career counselor, mountain climber, ‘Survivor’ survivor

Career counselor Linda Spencer leads through example. (Staff photo by Stephanie Mitchell) </p>

“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”

“Everything in life happens for a reason.”

“Life is the ultimate adventure.”

“Live your dreams.”

Forgive Linda Spencer if she spouts self-help book slogans. Forgive her because, as a career counselor/mountain climber/mom and wife/cancer survivor/”Survivor” survivor, she lives them.

Spencer, assistant director of career services, has achieved much, traveled far, and climbed high – literally – in her 45 years. She brings her life experiences, from summitting Mount Rainier’s 14,410-foot peak to gulping cow’s blood on “Survivor Africa” to beating thyroid cancer, to the guidance she lends to Harvard undergraduates who seek her career advice.

“My basic message is ‘live your dreams, go for your dreams,’” she said. “But I’m also a realist.”

Conquering Mount Rainier, cancer

Dreams tempered by realism proved a successful strategy for Spencer’s most recent achievement, reaching the top of Mount Rainier in Washington state. Always athletic but never outdoorsy, Spencer took up mountain climbing in 1996. Her inspiration came, quite literally, in a dream: “I had this vision. I saw myself on a mountain, and it was so strong,” she said. “I decided I was going to try to be this amateur mountain climber.”

Ever the pragmatist, Spencer outlined the skills she needed to achieve her goal: camping, hiking, ice climbing, winter camping. Less than a year later, in June 1997, Spencer went to Mount Rainier for a five-day mountain-climbing course. Described as the longest endurance climb in the lower 48 United States (and just shy of the tallest mountain), “Mount Rainier is that feather in your cap that you want,” said Spencer.

Spencer left with an empty cap, turning back before she reached the summit. “At about 12,000 feet, I felt like someone put a baggie over my head,” she said of the crippling effects of high altitude. Yet she was hardly discouraged. “It fueled my passion. It made me want to do it even more,” she said.

For several years, she doggedly pursued her dream, making trips to Bolivia, the Canadian Rockies, and Hawaii (courtesy of a Backpacker magazine essay contest) to hone her skills and boost her confidence with altitude.

She returned to conquer Mount Rainier in September 2000, but not until she’d met a much scarier challenge: thyroid cancer.

“It’s one of the better cancers to have,” said Spencer with her characteristic optimism. “Very few people die of it.” She had a complete thyroidectomy in January 2000, and in May underwent radioactive iodine treatment, a therapy she described as “like sleeping in a nuclear power plant.”

Facing down cancer helped Spencer return to Rainier. “The courage that I got was surprising, was shocking,” she said. “I was ready to look Rainier in the eye.” Planning her trip gave her a positive goal to focus on, important because “the cancer can just consume you,” she said. “You feel like you’ve just been betrayed by your body.”

‘The only one syndrome’

It stands to reason that if cancer wouldn’t stop Spencer, neither would the absence of black faces – or women of any race – in adventure sports like winter camping and mountain climbing. “I’ve been in so many situations where I’ve been the only one,” she said.

Growing up in Boston’s South End “when it was a ghetto” and finishing high school the year before busing rocked the city, Spencer spent her early years surrounded by other African Americans. As one of the first women and few African Americans to attend Dartmouth College in the 1970s, however, she quickly grew accustomed to what she calls “the only one syndrome.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, race issues do not follow her to the peaks of mountains. “Mountains become the great equalizer,” she said. “You’re on a team, you need each other. Race is not an issue.”

Although she has connected with several black male mountain climbers, Spencer wonders if, as an African-American woman, she might be making high-altitude history. “I’ll probably never know the answer to that, and that’s OK,” she said. “That’s not why I do it.”

Mountains of career choices

Spencer doesn’t climb mountains to be a better career counselor, either, but she believes it has a direct impact. “Career counseling is about helping people to discover their dreams,” she said, and she brings her extensive personal experience in that department to bear on her career-seeking charges.

Her particular expertise in the Office of Career Services is guiding Harvard College and Extension School students who are undecided about their futures, a group not as small as one might imagine. “I think they’re so severely bright, just extraordinary, outstanding young people, they have choices. And they are very careful about the choices that they make,” said Spencer.

She approaches her work with mountain-climbing enthusiasm and determination. “I love finding out what are the blocks in people’s lives,” she said. Some students face very real impediments, like cultural expectations, familial pressure, or just overwhelming student loans, to realizing their dreams. “Some of them are caught into that whole ‘should’ Harvard net, like they’re supposed to be a doctor, go into investment banking … when in fact, they want to be an elementary school teacher,” she said.

Spencer utilizes an arsenal of self-assessment tools to help students think about their life’s bliss and their obligations, real or imagined. “Loans are real, but they give you a long time to pay them off,” she said. “I say to students, ‘if you take a job and you hate it, and there’s no passion there, you’re going to be miserable.’ Isn’t life about being happy or trying to be happy?”

Surviving ‘Survivor’

While hundreds of Harvard students know Spencer for the sage career advice she dispenses, millions of Americans met her on “Survivor Africa,” the third season of the popular CBS program, which aired this fall. Watching the first two seasons with her family – “we’re huge, huge fans” – she thought, “I could do that.”

“The way I live my life is, I try to look for interesting, exciting, adventurous, and challenging experiences, and I try to link them in my life, as I also work and am a wife and a mom,” she said.

“Survivor” fit the bill. It wasn’t until after Spencer was chosen, from 51,000 applicants, that she learned that the series would be set in Africa, a continent she had visited for work or volunteer projects five times prior and felt a special connection to. “I felt like I was so blessed with being chosen and having that experience,” she said, claiming she would do it again “in a heartbeat.”

After being voted off in the fourth episode, long before another Boston-area contestant grabbed the million-dollar prize, Spencer eschewed the post-“Survivor” luxury safari that CBS sponsored for participants, instead volunteering with a mobile health clinic that visited Masai villages. “I looked out over the African plains and said ‘this is one of the poorest countries in the world and AIDS is rampant,’” she said, adding that her brother died of AIDS several years ago. She’s used some of her “Survivor” media appearances to raise money for the clinic.

A better wife, mom, and role model

Following a few chilly weekends of winter camping in the White Mountains, Spencer’s next adventure will be in Bolivia, where she hopes to climb the 19,870-foot Huayana Potosi. Mount Everest, she said matter-of-factly, is not on her to-do list: “It’s for professional climbers.”

For now, she’s enjoying the “Survivor” afterglow and spending some time with her family, who recently joined her in Los Angeles for a wide-eyed trip on the network party circuit. While her husband, Jim, and children Jared, 12, and Jenna, 11, stay at home during most of her adventures, they’re an important part of the team.

“I have an amazing, amazing husband who understands that I’m going to be a better wife, a better mom, a better friend, a better individual when I can go after my dreams,” said Spencer. “And hopefully, I’m being a role model for my children in this whole process of saying ‘go for your dreams, live your dreams, take some risks, take some chances.’”