Alumni Merit Award: Kelly O'Donnell (SESP87)
Kelly O’Donnell makes her living reporting on Washington, DC — a city of grandiose marble monuments. Yet the monument that makes the NBC News political reporter truly nostalgic is a slab of quartzite back in Evanston.
“I loved the Rock for the fun of it and the bigger idea of such an unconventional monument to student life,” she recalls. “While painted, even splattered messages ran the whole spectrum of subjects from day to day, the constant was that it gave everyone a voice.”
For anyone who watches NBC News, O’Donnell’s voice is unmistakable. She is a regular contributor to NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, Today, and MSNBC. She has also appeared as a panelist on Meet the Press and The Chris Matthews Show.
Since she was hired by NBC News as a correspondent in 1994, O’Donnell has covered some of the most significant events of our time, including the Oklahoma City bombing, Pope John Paul II’s international travels, the September 11 attacks, and the Columbia shuttle disaster. Versatility has long been one of her journalistic trademarks. She has shown the ability to expertly handle a diverse range of assignments — whether embedded with the Third Infantry Division in Iraq or covering four Olympic Games.
Along the way, O’Donnell has reported on some of the most powerful leaders in the world. In addition to her work covering multiple presidential campaigns (she earned Emmy and National Headliner awards for her work in 2008), she served as NBC’s White House correspondent during President George W. Bush’s second term and is currently Capitol Hill correspondent.
As a Northwestern student, much of O’Donnell’s political discourse took place in the wooden booths of Yesterday’s on Sherman Avenue, where she and her friends would drink coffee late into the night.
“Northwestern was really a passport to a wider world,” she says. “From freshman year through graduation, it showed me how to push beyond the familiar and comfortable. Northwestern introduced me to new people and ideas that inspired my confidence and curiosity. This has been invaluable doing stories around the world, from Manhattan to Mongolia.”
By taking part in the School of Education and Social Policy’s Human Development and Social Policy Program, she designed a major for herself that combined journalism and social policy. O’Donnell also fondly remembers her two years living at “Plex” (the Foster Walker Complex), Monday night dinners at the Pi Phi house, and football games at Dyche Stadium (now Ryan Field).
An Arlington, Virginia, resident, O’Donnell is engaged to her longtime partner, J. David Ake.