Andrea Elliott '91 / The Worlds of Other People

Andrea Elliott '91 / The Worlds of Other People
Danny Stock

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Andrea Elliott '91 steeps herself in the lives of the people she covers.

ANDREA ELLIOTT ’91 is a deeply curious person.

Her immersive reporting is intimate and intensely empathetic, drawing on months and even years embedded with those at the center of her stories. She spent more than six months with Egyptian immigrant Sheik Reda Shata for her 2006 New York Times series, “An Imam in America,” which documented post-9/11 life in Brooklyn’s Muslim community, earning her the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. In 2022, she won a second Pulitzer Prize, this time in General Nonfiction for her book, Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City. She is the first woman in history to win individual prizes in both of the major categories, “Journalism” and “Books, Drama & Music.” Invisible Child covers the homeless crisis in New York City, where she followed young Dasani Coates and her family for nearly a decade. 

Cover of Invisible Child by Andrea Elliott '91

“It is riveting for me to enter into the worlds of other people,” Andrea said over the phone from New York City after a Pulitzer Prize-supercharged international press tour. “The stories I write take possession of me and become my life for a while.” Andrea had tucked herself out of the way in her boyfriend’s house for the call and, not knowing how to operate the light switch in that particular corner, gave the interview standing in darkness. The New York Times reporter is hardly a stranger to interviews conducted in less-than-ideal conditions. She reported on Dasani’s story while riding trains, standing in welfare lines, and sleeping on park benches.

“Maybe the thing I enjoy most about the work I do is departing from my own life and stepping into a new life,” she said. “Getting a very good feeling experientially for what it is like to be in that life is always an exercise that leads to revelation and growth. I’m always learning new things. And I find that exciting and humbling.”

Like the act of empathy itself, Andrea’s work is about crossing boundaries. She has called it “standing in the midst of” a life. GDS classmate and Politico editor Mike Schaffer ’91 (parent of Ellie ’25) described Andrea’s immersive work as “excruciatingly difficult” to pull off without affecting outcomes. “It’s pretty amazing what she does,” said Mike, who worked with Andrea on The Augur Bit, the GDS High School newspaper, and went on to serve as editor-in-chief of both Washington City Paper and Washingtonian Magazine.

Asked where he saw inklings of her journalistic inclinations as a student, Mike explained, “Living—seeping—into the life of somebody who is very different from her, going forth with curiosity and empathy, is something you don’t have that much opportunity to do as a kid.” In a city “full of kids who are interested in politics, writing their Augur Bit articles as if they’re covering Congress,” he said, Andrea went in “a more personal and curious direction.”

Andrea Elliott's Augur Bit article from 1990

This profile of maintenance staff member Guillermo Valerin is the Augur Bit piece Andrea treasures most.

She wrote food and film reviews as well as some hard-hitting investigative pieces and profiles of community members. In March 1991, her story exploring gender discrimination in STEM at GDS dominated the entire front page. Classmate Thomas Graham ’91 recalled a story she wrote about maintenance staff member Guillermo Valerin (parent of Kathy ’99 and Rebecca ’99), who Andrea called GDS’s unsung hero.

“She interviewed this person that all of us saw every day but that we didn’t have so much occasion to get to know,” Thomas said. “In thinking about who [Andrea] is, who she has always been, and what she’s been interested in, that story [about Guillermo] comes to mind.” Even then, she was captivated by the lives of other people. She believed that everyone has an important story to tell, Thomas explained, and she set about telling it. 

Andrea said, “That ‘GDS’ Unsung Hero’ is my first attempt at the kind of work I’d go on to chase for the rest of my life.”

That Wrenching Period of Adolescence 

Andrea had come to GDS in 9th grade as a transplant from a British boarding school during a moment of great strain for her family. Her parents were both taking on new responsibilities: Dad (a lawyer and entrepreneur) was opening a restaurant as mom began graduate school, studying around the clock. “They are my heroes, but they were the opposite of helicopter parents,” Andrea said. “I don’t remember ever discussing my school work with them.” In the scramble to relocate, each of the three children ended up at a different DC-area independent school.

The transition was abrupt. Andrea had left a stable school environment where she thrived, making the honor roll, to find herself at GDS—a space that felt unfamiliar, high-pressured, and so tight-knit as a community that an outsider like her could have a hard time making their way socially.

“I both sank and swam,” she said. “I think I floundered at first, but where I found huge excitement and anchoring was on the newspaper. From the moment I joined it, I felt, ‘This is where I belong.’”

She described her years at GDS as among the most formative four years of her life. She had the chance to test out the person she’d become—considered a life in theater, for example, and performed in various plays. Features editor Chelsea Hadley ’89 recruited her in 9th grade and, with Augur Bit faculty advisor Cleve Bryant, sparked her passion for journalism. Ultimately, Andrea determined that was where she thrived. “People often ask me, ‘When did you know you wanted to be a journalist?’ And I always say it was in high school.”

Then, there was “the amazing Barabara Lockwood” (English) and “Bio” Bill George (science and theater) who also helped guide her through what Andrea called that “wrenching period of adolescence” that is high school. 

“Barbara taught me so much and believed in me,” she said. “In her presence, I felt I could do anything. There are certain teachers who do that for you. And I loved Bill George, but let’s just say I had less love for botany. I think I still have the classic nightmare where you wake up and you’re like, ‘Wait, did I not graduate?’”

Andrea Elliott black and white portrait (Credit: Nina Subin)

Nina Subin

“Captain of My Ship”

Now a parent, Andrea has gained perspective on the collection of pleasing and painful memories. She can even laugh about some of them. She recalls her college counselor, Kevin Barr, thinking ‘sky’s the limit!’ while reading her senior essay and ‘Yikes!’ when he then saw her transcript pockmarked with “incredible peaks and valleys.” Through everything, she learned self-reliance—to “be the captain of my ship”—and gained a lifelong love of learning. 

“I went into the world prepared, as much as I might have cursed it at the time,” Andrea said.

Perhaps most of all about GDS, she remembers the clear commitment to ideas among students and faculty. “There was an energy around debate, around new ideas, around challenging old ideas, and around the importance of intellectual exchanges,” she remembers.

Her former editor at The New York Times, Joe Sexton, surmised that GDS “must empower people to dream big,” based on the qualities he has come to know in Andrea. “Courage, persistence, humility, faith,” he listed. “A pretty unbeatable cocktail of qualities for a reporter.”

Andrea is a devoted student of whatever topic she’s working on, a mindset Joe described as “a godsend” for an editor. “[Editors] need to trust their reporters have been comprehensive, learned, skeptical, [and] committed,” he said.

Andrea went west after GDS to Occidental College, where she headed to the school newspaper office with her Augur Bit clippings in hand. She studied comparative literature and, after graduation, crisscrossed South America on assignment for Chilean television (her mother is Chilean). She produced and co-directed a late 1990s feature-length documentary on aggressive inline skating subcultures in Los Angeles and New York City called “It’s All Good,” before transitioning back to print journalism. As a reporter with the Miami Herald, she covered the 2000 Florida recount as well as crime, immigration, and Latin American politics. She graduated as valedictorian from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in 1999, and in May 2015, the university awarded her its Medal for Excellence, which is awarded to one graduate under 45 every year.

Andrea's extensive referenced notes for her book Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City

Andrea's extensive referenced notes for her book Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City

“Where I Feel Most Alive”

Andrea describes her research in the way others might describe an epic treasure hunt: Through the voluminous trove of records, she follows each facet of the mystery—absorbing everything, but at the same time not getting lost in the morass of information.

“Each document carries the promise of revelation,” she said. “The most mundane handwritten note, jotted on a bureaucratic record, becomes a clue that furthers the narrative.”

Andrea’s research for Invisible Child contained more than 14,000 records, hand-counted for the sources and methods explanation contained in the book. Though she prefers being with people to papers, she’s captivated nearly as much by the deep dive into documents.

“It makes me jump out of bed every morning,” said Andrea, who joined Princeton’s faculty as a professor of creative nonfiction this spring. “I get so excited about the people I’m following, the worlds they represent, and trying to figure out what those worlds are about. Where I feel most alive is in reporting. You look for everything you can as a journalist. You look for every piece of truth. You live for every fact you can get.”

Andrea Elliott accepts the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction from Columbia University President Lee Bollinger (Credi
Andrea Elliott '91 from the GDS High School yearbook
Andrea Elliott's Augur Bit issues
Andrea Elliott '91 / The Worlds of Other People
  • Alumni
  • Writers

More from Georgetown Days Magazine

No post to display.