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Fall 2009

The Great Leveler

david_ottoway.jpgMany years ago David Ottaway contemplated whether to become a teacher or a journalist. He chose the latter. With more than 30 years working as a journalist under his belt, Ottaway admits that he doesn't regret the decision, even though he has always kept one foot in the world of education. Today he remains devoted to supporting many education initiatives, including the Ed School's Urban Scholars Fellowship program.

Looking back on Ottaway's long journalism career, it's easy to see why he doesn't regret his choice. He has witnessed some of the 20th century's most notable moments in world history, including the overthrow of Ethiopia's Haile Selassie, Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom in South Africa, and the departure of a million French people from Algeria. In what he considers the most dramatic piece of history, Ottaway stood only 40 yards from the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at a parade in 1981. "There was so much chaos, I was able to run down to the podium to find out whether he survived and nobody stopped me," Ottaway recalls. "That was quite an event. There have been a lot of interesting stories."

For Ottaway, journalism was, more or less, in his blood. Raised in upstate New York, his family founded the Ottaway Group of newspapers, which consisted of publications in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and the West Coast. By the 1960s, though, the family sold the newspapers to Dow Jones & Company, and Ottaway went to study history at Harvard College.

After graduating, Ottaway began working abroad for The New York Times and Time Magazine. At the time, Algeria was fighting for independence from France and Ottaway found himself covering it firsthand. "At that point, I had some idea what it was like being able to witness history in the making," he says.

By 1971, Ottaway had joined The Washington Post, where he spent the bulk of his career working as a national security reporter, foreign correspondent, and investigative reporter. Being a journalist, Ottaway says, taught him "how good people can be and how horrible people can be. You see the best and worst of people and everything in between."

With the daily grind of journalism behind him, Ottaway continues to write books in his retirement, including the recently published The King's Messenger: Prince Bandar bin Sultan and America's Tangled Relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Outside of writing, he also dedicates much of his time and efforts to addressing issues in education with his wife, Marina, who has taught at universities around the world.

As a resident of Washington, D.C., for more than 30 years, Ottaway became alarmed watching repeated education efforts to improve the city's schools fail. "This has led to a very vibrant charter school movement in Washington in part of the great search to find out what kind of education or educational system will establish better school systems for all -- white, black, brown, yellow," Ottaway says. "What concerns me is how difficult it is to make any progress. There is no overall sustained system of education that we've been able to define that works for all."

The lack of progress, particularly among African Americans and Latinos, drives Ottaway to continue being a advocate for and provide scholarships to minority students and urban schools. "Education is the most powerful tool for giving them an even chance in the world," Ottaway says. "Education is a great leveler."

Together, Ottaway and his wife helped launch the SEED School in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit that partners with urban communities to provide innovative educational opportunities that prepare underserved students for success in college and beyond. With two successful schools completed to date, plans are underway for additional schools in the future.

While working on Harvard University Committee on Student Excellence and Opportunity from 2005 to 2008, Ottaway learned of the Ed School's Urban Scholars Fellowship -- a program that provides tuition and health insurance fees for nine selected educators from urban school systems. The program resonated with Ottaway, who became intrigued by the urban scholars' determination to continue as teachers in urban schools.

The Urban Scholars Fellowship program is part of a larger effort at the Ed School to provide additional financial aid to master's students. For many of the students awarded the fellowship, without it, graduate school wouldn't be an option.

Though Ottaway is modest about his support of the Urban Scholars Fellowship program, he sees teachers as key to solving education's problems. "If they can help save the public school system, God bless them," he says. "What is important is that they go back to urban schools and don't get sidetracked because the urban schools need so much help."