When Hlib Burtsev ’26 — a Ukrainian student admitted to Brown last year — was crossing the Hungary-Ukraine border in May 2022, it was “2 or 3 a.m.” in Providence. Panetha Ott, the Office of College Admission’s director of admission and international recruitment, was awake and waiting for Burtsev’s good news. She helped Burtsev and another Ukrainian admit, Oleksii Shebanov ’26, come early for the University’s summer session so that they could be safe from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Ott “would often laugh and tell us that she was ‘in’ London at 1 a.m., ‘in’ Istanbul at 5 a.m. and ‘in’ Singapore at noon,” Associate Provost for Enrollment and Dean of Admission Logan Powell, who knew Ott for about 20 years, wrote in an email to The Herald. “In reality, she would stay up nearly all night connecting with alumni and prospective students by phone and Zoom.”
Burtsev and Shebanov met Ott in person in late August — a meeting delayed by her health issues. They brought her Ukrainian souvenirs, and Ott bought them fish-shaped pastries, taiyaki, from Ceremony on Brook Street.
That was the second-to-last time Burtsev met Ott in person, before seeing her again at the 2022 international orientation, where Ott gave her annual keynote address. In her speech, she told Burtsev and Shebanov’s story in detail as an example of the resilience their class shared.
Ott died at age 63 of cancer in early December after more than 33 years of recruiting international students. She is remembered for honoring countless stories of students like Burtsev and Shebanov while working diligently to ensure the success of international students.
Born in Brockton, Massachusetts, Ott attended Bryn Mawr College for undergraduate education, the University of Pennsylvania for a doctor of education and worked towards a PhD at Brown.
She is survived by her husband Stephen Ott PhD ’92, nephew Spencer Florence, as well as a legacy of dedication to international students and bringing energy and joy to others.
A genuine love: Working with international students
Joseph Pucci, professor of classics and in the program in medieval studies and professor of comparative literature, first met Panetha Ott in 1997 after bringing an outreach plan to the Office of Admission that aimed to ensure healthy enrollment in the classics department.
After formulating a plan together, Panetha Ott “would work her magic and gather together hundreds of names of students who were interested in classics” to connect them with Pucci or arrange visits every year.
Pucci and Panetha Ott became good friends. As a classics professor, Pucci offered feedback on applicants interested in classics while sitting in her office. They talked. She made Pucci herbal tea.
Panetha Ott was invested in every one of the countless applications she read, Stephen Ott said. “She would come home very excitedly if she found someone special.”
But Panetha Ott worked in both admitting and matriculating international students, said Associate Provost for Global Engagement Asabe Poloma.
When Poloma first met Panetha Ott in a job interview, “her aspiration,” “vision” and “passion” were clear.
In a previous job, Poloma and Panetha Ott, along with the Office of International Student and Scholar Services and the Global Brown Center for International Students collaborated to help incoming international students — including facilitating transportation, obtaining immigration documents and organizing international orientation.
While playing “an instrumental role in coordinating and organizing” IO, Panetha Ott had a “very powerful and symbolic role” because of her keynote speech every year, Poloma said. Her speech was “deeply personal” and tried to make each individual “feel seen” in the large auditorium, Poloma said.
Poloma also noted Panetha Ott’s “capacity for creative, imaginative thinking” on top of her “incredible energy,” always “proactively anticipating” student and community needs. These traits became evident during their first time working together when the Trump administration announced an Executive Order preventing people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. The team worked on a tight timeline to support impacted students.
Panetha Ott knew how to address a crisis — she was “instrumental” in supporting the admission of displaced Ukrainian students and dedicated time to supporting other students who were refugees or displaced, Poloma said.
A ‘fierce advocate’ for students
After Kabul, Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in 2021, a group of female students struggled to return to college at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh. They were evacuated to the United States, and the University welcomed 15 of them as non-degree students in fall 2021.
Panetha Ott then “worked like crazy” to have them — who she named “The Fantastic 15” — officially accepted to the University, said Chaplain of the University and Director of the Office Reverend Janet Cooper Nelson, who was friends with Ott for more than 20 years. “She was so excited about them,” Stephen Ott said.
Out of the 15 students, 12 eventually decided to apply to the University and were all accepted in December, 2022, according to Powell.
Panetha Ott “had been supportive of them throughout and was a champion for these amazing women at every stage of the admission process,” Powell wrote in an email to The Herald. She was aware of their acceptance before she passed, he added.
Three decided to apply elsewhere — a result of careful consultation with Panetha Ott.
All 15 students had “written a beautiful, big card wishing her healing” when Panetha Ott was having health struggles, Cooper Nelson said.
“When she came (to the University), there was not really much of an international student program. … She’s the one who built it all up,” Stephen Ott said. And “when she really wanted something (to happen), she fought for it.”
Panetha Ott pushed hard for expanded international financial aid and increased international enrollment, Stephen Ott said.
“She was a fierce advocate for our students,” said Andrew Heald, current GBC program director.
A natural teacher
Panetha Ott met Stephen Ott as a graduate student at Brown in 1981. She studied classical philology while he studied classical philosophy. Stephen Ott told their story in Wayland Square Diner, where the couple used to go, sometimes twice a week, even before they dated.
“She was very intelligent,” Stephen Ott said. “She was also extremely intuitive.”
Panetha Ott occasionally lectured in one of Pucci’s courses. “She was a talented teacher, a natural lecturer,” Pucci said, adding that she spoke “cogently” about a wide variety of cultures.
“And she really was a very wise and enriching figure,” said Madeline “Maddy” Noh ’22 GS, who worked with Panetha Ott to teach high school students English and as a Meiklejohn student advising partner. She noted the amount of knowledge Panetha Ott had and how she loved sharing it.
“Being with her is an education itself,” said Stephen Ott. “In fact, I think I learned more from her than I learned from anybody in my life.”
Multiple people emphasized how much they loved Panetha Ott’s sense of humor. “She made me laugh,” said Pucci. “She was an original one.”
Bringing hope and trust
Stella Sapantzi ’24, a student from Greece, heard about Panetha Ott even before she applied to the University. With family roots in Greece herself, Panetha Ott was close friends with Sapantzi’s high school college counselor.
After Sapantzi’s acceptance, she and her family emailed Panetha Ott about logistics. Panetha Ott offered Sapantzi’s mother her personal phone number. “It was a lot of relief for my family,” Sapantzi said. “We trusted her before we even spoke to her.”
The first time Sapantzi called Panetha Ott was when she had trouble traveling back home. Greek authorities needed her passport number on her COVID-19 test, but the University didn’t provide it. “I was crying at the airport,” Sapantzi said. “I called her even before Health Services … She was very helpful. I made it back home.”
Without having met her in person, Panetha Ott became Sapantzi’s “strongest support person in the U.S.” The hope and trust she offered in challenging times continued to impact her students.
When Burtsev was preparing for a “very difficult” journey from Ukraine to the University, Panetha Ott “was really hopeful all the time,” he said. “She always said, ‘there are no problems that are not solvable. There’s always a way out.’”
Former GBC student staff member Nhu Phung ’21 — who worked with Panetha Ott to interview Heald for his position — recalled that she gave her “a lot of agency.”
“At some point, I wanted to go into higher education administration because of people like her and because of the impact she has on people’s lives,” Phung added.
Panetha Ott was someone Noh knew she could turn to “for assistance or help” both professionally and as a friend, despite their “very large age gap.”
“She just gave to people unconditionally,” Sapantzi said. “She didn’t expect recognition … for working after hours, or for giving away her cell phone number.”
‘She connected on a personal level with every single one of us’
Panetha Ott made everyone around her feel seen, Heald said.
She “was like a repository of stories” and “a walking library of the international student experience,” he added.
“It’s really easy in positions like (Panetha Ott’s) to think about the international student experience in terms of data,” he added. She “utilized data, … (but) she reminded us every day that there’s an experience behind that data.”
Despite knowing many students, “she would always remember details about my life and things that I mentioned a very, very long time ago,” Noh said. For Sapantzi, Panetha Ott “connected on a personal level with every single one of us.”
This individual attention and care also extended to Panetha Ott’s colleagues.
She knew which northeastern Nigerian village Poloma was from and inquired about related news she saw. “Even when we’re busy … you always felt when Panetha was with you that she was really holding that time with you, and nothing else mattered,” Poloma added.
During Heald’s first year working in GBC amidst the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when “there were so many complications going on” in supporting international students, he received a call from Panetha Ott “out of nowhere.” “I immediately thought, what’s wrong?” Heald said.
“When I answered the phone, she was like, ‘Hi, how are you? … I just wanted to see how you were doing,’” said Heald. “It was a moment of pause for me that she offered to say, stop working for a moment, be you.”
For Cooper Nelson, Panetha Ott showed care through simple, daily actions. “Sometimes I’d look up (from my desk), and I’d see her face,” Cooper Nelson said. “And she would smile and say, ‘I just thought I’d stop by and say, hi, I love you.’” Other times, Panetha Ott would leave chocolate or something else Cooper Nelson liked on her desk. “And you just knew she’d been here.”
“When you least expected it, but when you most needed it,” she said.
Every summer, Pucci would receive on his front porch a bag of vegetables from Panetha Ott’s garden. It always had peppers and tomatoes. She “was proudest of her tomatoes.”
“I looked forward to getting that,” Pucci said. “I got one in August, when she was clearly not well.”
An embodiment of Brown
Panetha Ott became a symbol of the University for international students. “She was so passionate about the values and ideals of Brown, and she has brought that into the world in her travels and talking to students around the world,” Noh said. “She was so curious, so open-minded … she loved learning so much.”
“It’s easier to (say) what were the countries she didn’t visit,” Stephen Ott said. “I don’t think there’s a continent she didn’t set foot on.”
Panetha Ott was “very well-regarded in the admissions circle,” Stephen Ott said. Paths of people on the same road crossed throughout the years. An online memorial featured a “thoroughly international group” of people, whether professional staff or former students, who shared stories about her, Cooper Nelson said.
Panetha Ott “brought Brown alive” for all international students who lived far away, Cooper Nelson added.
When the “Fantastic 15” finally arrived at the airport — after complicated logistics and flight delays due to a snowstorm — it was 2 a.m.. Poloma, who was picking them up, received a call from Panetha Ott, who told her that she would meet her at the airport despite having a call at 11 p.m. with an international alum in South Korea. Poloma told Panetha Ott she was fine on her own.
“I showed up to the airport at 1:30 a.m., and not only was Panetha there, but with the biggest smile and a poster,” Poloma said. “I just thought to myself, this is not work. This is someone who just embodies so much … That was Panetha.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Panetha Ott's age when she died. The Herald regrets the error.
Kathy Wang is a University News editor who oversees the student government and international student life beats. She is a sophomore from Beijing, China studying Nonfiction Writing and Comparative Literature.