Scot Riddell has a rare talent: when he speaks, middle school children listen.

Maybe it’s his imposing presence — at 6 feet 3 inches and 225 pounds, Riddell commands attention. Or his oratorical skills — a recipient of the Department of Rhetoric and Communication Studies’ Keynote Speakers Award, Riddell knows how to engage an audience. Or the cool factor — a wide receiver for the Spiders, Riddell leverages the deference accorded athletes.

Whatever the reason behind it, Riddell uses his ability to communicate with middle school students to stress the importance of education.   

Riddell, a marketing and rhetoric and communications studies double major, first worked with middle school children during the second semester of his sophomore year when he volunteered at L. Douglas Wilder Middle School in Henrico County to fulfill the service-learning requirement for a leadership studies course.

Right away he found ways to connect with the children. Like many of them, Riddell experienced the loss of a father at a relatively young age. His father died of lymphoma during Riddell’s sophomore year. At about the same time, Riddell suffered a shoulder injury that prevented him from playing the full football season.

“I had a dark cloud over my head,” Riddell said, “but I kept pushing forward waiting for a bright spot to open up. The [Wilder] kids were that bright spot. They allowed me to focus a lot of my negative energy — my disappointment and grief — towards a positive thing.

“Most of my kids didn’t have father figures. I know what it’s like to lose a father, to feel that kind of pain.”

Riddell also connected to the kids on another level — as a student athlete. “Athletes are larger than life in the eyes of most middle school kids,” Riddell said. “The kids don’t know much about academics, but they know about sports.”

Riddell aimed to change how much disadvantaged students knew about academics.

After his initial experience working with middle school students, Riddell spent two summers mentoring football players at a high school in his hometown of Gaithersburg, Md. He encouraged the athletes to excel on the field and in their studies.

Riddell began working for Tsquared Tutors at Richmond’s Henderson Middle School, a Build It partner, in spring 2010. (Build It, the University’s largest civic-engagement initiative, places UR volunteers as mentors, tutors, and administrative support in Northside Richmond schools and nonprofits.) Riddell helped prepare inner-city students for the state-mandated Standards of Learning tests.

Riddell collaborated with Build It program manager Cassie Price to reward his students for their hard work with a trip to campus on June 11 to meet approximately 15 UR football and basketball players.

After the children had a chance to talk with the athletes, Riddell reinforced his message. “You’ve got to focus,” he told the children. “You see these guys standing in front of you? They weren’t running through the halls of their middle school goofing off when they should have been in class learning. They had to be disciplined on the field and in the classroom to get where they are today. You can do that too. You know what I’m saying?”

The children nodded their heads in agreement before following Riddell to the Weinstein Center to shoot hoops and throw footballs with some of the athletes. Riddell hopes that this field trip will inspire some of his students to pursue a college education.

Riddell plans to pursue an MBA degree and eventually work for an international organization. But he also hopes to volunteer with underserved middle school children whenever he finds himself back in the United States.

“Being able to see one kid that I’ve touched makes my week,” Riddell said. “If you can reach just one or two of them, it makes it all worth it.”