By Bill Hudson

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Eden Prairie’s Riley Tillitt is entering a world that is opened to a precious few.

Of the 2,000 U.S. college students who apply, only 32 are awarded Rhodes Scholarships for study at England’s Oxford University.

“For me it presents the opportunity to go to Oxford to study public policy, criminology and focus on issues I’m most passionate about,” Tillitt said.

But for the soon to be Rhodes Scholar, the highest academic honor will come with a heavy heart.

In September 2015, Riley lost his older brother Max to the growing opioid epidemic. His brother died in an Eden Prairie hotel room of a heroin overdose, his infant son and fiancé nearby.

“Watching what he struggled with and the policy that responded to it, made me feel that something was wrong, we could do better,” Tillitt explains.

Riley and his father both testified at the sentencing of Beverly Burrell. She was the Minneapolis drug dealer convicted of selling heroin to Max and several others who overdosed.

While both men asked for leniency, the judge sentenced Burrell to more than 14 years in prison for providing the heroin which led to the fatalities.

Still, Riley believes in restorative justice and says a large part of our inability to change course is due to the need to change public perception.

“This is not a criminal justice matter – it’s a public health matter. Addiction is a mental illness,” Riley said.

With brother Max in mind, Riley intends to pursue a double master’s degree while at Oxford, studying public policy and criminology.

He believes in finding new approaches to treating the drug problem.

“Max didn’t have to die. There are policies that exist now that if we implement them I genuinely think they could have saved Max’s life. Potentially saved tens of thousands of other people who died of drug overdoses in last few years,” Tillitt said.

A soon to be very proud and dedicated Rhodes Scholar – motivated by passion and pain.

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