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Don Olcott Jr.'s global journey in education began at WWU

Story by Mary Lane Gallagher

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Don Olcott Jr.('81 and '86), pictured here in his London office, is chief executive of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, which gathers and publishes information about colleges and universities offering higher ed programs in other countries. | Photo by Matthew Clayton

When Don Olcott Jr. (’81 and ’86) travels to a different country, and he’s been to 16 in the past year alone, he starts thinking about how he’s going to get a cup of coffee.

The head of a London-based information service that tracks global higher education issues, Olcott keeps a small library of language guides handy, convinced that knowing even just enough of the local language to order a cup of coffee can result in a critical beginning.

“You cannot understand another’s culture if you don’t also understand the basic underpinnings of their language,” Olcott says. “I can tell you from experience that speaking French in Paris, Mandarin in Shanghai, or Polish in Krakow opens the door with the native French, Chinese and Poles.”

Bridging cultures isn’t just an academic exercise for Olcott, this year’s recipient of the WWU Alumni Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. As chief executive of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, Olcott helps universities and governments navigate the cultural complexities of educating students across international boundaries.

“We are a strategic information resource for universities that are delivering their programs in another country,” says Olcott, who began his career at WWU in charge of Woodring College of Education initiatives to help universities reach out to rural and under-served areas.

Today, he leads a group that helps its 200 members sort through such issues as quality assurance and legal logistics as well as the cultural, social and language issues that come with establishing a campus abroad.

And a growing number of universities are seeking this kind of expertise. There were 162 international branch campuses in 2009, when the Observatory released its most recent data. That’s an increase of 43 percent in just three years.

Typically, branch campuses are established by universities in the U.S., Great Britain and Australia, setting up shop in the Middle East and Asia. The United Arab Emirates, for example, hosts about 40 campuses of overseas universities. China hosts another 15.

But all the growth isn’t necessarily good, Olcott says.

“Perhaps the most important issue we currently address is helping universities assess whether they belong on the international playing field,” he says.

A native of Skagit County, Olcott says he was a good athlete but lackluster student in high school. He turned down athletic scholarships to join the Air Force, where he met many people who had joined the military for a chance at a better life, and took his first three college classes on base in Germany.

Later, he came home to enroll at Skagit Valley College on the GI Bill, then came to WWU to complete his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Soon after graduation he taught in Woodring’s Human Services program and worked in the college’s National Rural Development Institute.

Working with universities around the country to improve K-12 education in rural areas, it was Olcott’s first introduction to the importance of distance education, grant writing and the power of educational access, “particularly for those who faced geographical, financial and social barriers,” he says.

These were skills and ideals that would carry him through a career as a leader in distance education at Oregon State University, where he earned a doctorate, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, University of Arizona and Western Oregon University.

Though he moved to London in 2007, Olcott still serves on the board of directors for the U.S. Distance Learning Association. He has also worked in the private sector serving as a vice president for the VCampus Corporation, an online learning services company based in Virginia.

Larry Marrs, Olcott’s dean while he studied and worked at Woodring, has been inspired watching Olcott’s career.

“Some of the international stuff he’s done, I didn’t even know was there,” Marrs says. “He’s done an amazing job of being a step ahead of where a lot of people are. He’s on the cutting edge of whatever it is and has always done a wonderful job of helping universities and other organizations take their next step, whether it is in technology, rural education, or consortia building.”

Olcott says it remains a career grounded in finding ways to improve access to education first on a local, now on an international scale.

“Today, at the international level I travel to many countries and see first hand the incredible challenges facing people in developing countries who desire to get a college education,” Olcott says. “Their barriers are beyond the typical things like finances, housing, family time and work commitments, although those are very real. Many of these people live in conflict zones and have more fundamental human needs such as food, healthcare, public safety, racial and religious discrimination.

“When you see it up close and personal,” he says, “it really leaves its mark on you.”