Member of Adelphi University’s Profiles in Success program
Psychologist, author, educator
In her book, New Frontiers in Aging, psychologist Dr. Olga Brom Spencer, M.S.W. ’71 discusses how important it is that individuals recognize “moments that are validation of life lived fully,” particularly as we grow older. Dr. Spencer’s own journey plays out like a series of the very moments she describes; her life and career are filled with experiences enjoyed and accomplishments achieved with great passion and purpose.
Born and raised in Austria, Dr. Spencer lived through World War II, a period of time that she described as life-changing. When she was ready to enter college, she decided to complete her education in France. It was while studying in Paris that she met John L. Brom, a filmmaker and photographer-explorer.
Throughout his career, Brom documented, from an anthropological perspective, the tribes and fauna of the regions of East and Central Africa through which he travelled. Dr. Spencer, who would accompany Brom to Africa on three occasions, made her first trip to the Congo with him in 1948. “My parents were against me going,” she said. “But it was the chance of a lifetime.”
Several years later, she and Brom married. In 1955, the couple returned to Africa where they followed the footsteps of Henry Morton Stanley, a Welch journalist and explorer who was famous for his exploration of central Africa. At this time, Dr. Spencer was the only woman, and her husband the only explorer, to have followed his tracks.
Brom continued his travels to Africa. His footage of the indigenous life of various tribes as they interacted with their environments for food and practiced their culture through ceremony and ritual became the basis for several books and full-length documentary films, many of which are preserved in the Human Studies Film Archives of the Smithsonian Institution.
In 1963, the couple and their two children immigrated to the United States and made their home in Douglaston, New York. Dr. Spencer pursued her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Hofstra University, which she earned in 1969.
Just months later, her husband died suddenly while working on The Changing Face of Africa, a television series that was never completed. “I was a 40-year old widow with two children and no career,” said Dr. Spencer. “I was at a crossroads, but held on to the thought that I needed something to give me hope.”
After a friend recommended she continue her studies in social work at the graduate level at Adelphi, she enrolled in the University’s School of Social Work. Dr. Spencer was grateful that Adelphi was flexible with her schedule and financial situation. “I had no money…but Adelphi worked with me,” said Dr. Spencer, who sold the collection of African paintings she had acquired from her travels with her husband to pay for her tuition.
After graduating with her M.S.W. from Adelphi, she put her dream of earning a Ph.D. on hold. “At that point in my life, I was dedicated to my family and career,” said Dr. Spencer, who had joined the faculty of the New York University School of Social Work and married her second husband.
Dr. Spencer, who worked at Jewish and Family Services in addition to NYU, kept close ties with the members of Adelphi’s faculty. In particular, she found a close colleague in Adelphi School of Social Work Dean and Professor Joseph Vigilante. “I spoke in depth with Professor Vigilante about one-parent families,” she said. It was a population she felt needed the help she could provide. “At that time ‘single parent’ was barely coined as a term in the lexicon,” said Dr. Spencer. “The challenges of a one parent household—income, childcare, discipline, stigma—were not well recognized and therefore not well addressed in the helping professions. She pioneered the recognition of treatment needs and treatment structures that would assist these families,” she said.
Dr. Vigilante supported Dr. Spencer’s vision, and she successfully coordinated a symposium on the topic of single-parent families that was attended by more than 200 people. This event served as a catalyst; Dr. Spencer went on to apply for nonprofit status and establish the World Trade Family Center, based in the World Trade Center, where she offered one-parent families assessment, treatment and referral if necessary.
In 1998, at 70 years old, Dr. Spencer began her Ph.D. at Southern California University for Professional Studies, where she discovered the topic she wanted to explore for her dissertation: retirement and aging. “As elders are living longer and healthier lives…these additional years call for a new vision and fulfillment of the senior stage,” she said. She was so invested in her research that she went on to write a book on the subject, New Frontier in Aging.
For her contributions to aging issues, she received the AARP National Award for Seniors in 2007, awarded for ‘Outstanding Service to the Organization.’ Dr. Spencer significantly revitalized a waning AARP chapter that was in danger of being closed, through enhanced program development targeted for improving senior years.
Most recently, Dr. Spencer, author of three other books based on her African experiences, wrote Africa’s Last Romantic, which captures John Brom’s film expeditions through sub-Saharan Africa. Glen Reynolds, associate professor at Mount Saint Mary College, Newburgh, New York requested she write this for a course he teaches on African history. The book was published in 2014.
Reflecting on her life and career, Dr. Spencer said she feels grateful to have experienced all that she has. “Life is fulfilled,” she said. “For I did what I intended to be.”
Published December 2014