Alumni Spotlight: Kathryn Wyatt Cottingham, BCS’76

From an early age, Kathryn was interested in the world: its history, geography, travel, and people. Her time at KHC and BCS did a good job of broadening those interests, she shares: “I wanted to meet the students who came from Columbia, Mexico, St. Kitts, and elsewhere. It seemed so interesting that they would come to school so far away. Very brave of them and exciting!”

It was also at BCS that Kathy first experienced what an individual can do to create change. It’s a lesson that has guided her throughout both the corporate and non-profit worlds, inspiring her to seize opportunities and advocate for those who can’t do so themselves. Her actions and choices are informed by a simple, yet golden rule: ‘Treat others as you want to be treated.’

Hailing from Montreal, Kathy started at King’s Hall, Compton in 1971 for the school’s final year. “My parents were travelling a lot and they felt that a boarding school environment was the best place for me.” After visiting a few different schools, they settled on KHC. “It looked nice and I liked the campus so that’s why I chose it.” However, Kathy’s initial boarding school experience was not what she expected, and she returned to Montreal after the year was up. But she kept in touch with the friends she had made and was quickly encouraged to return to the Townships. “All my friends loved it at BCS and said that I should be there, so it wasn’t a difficult decision. My parents were also keen for me to return, and I think by Thanksgiving we’d decided I would go back for the next school year.” 

Kathy really enjoyed the new BCS setting. “Going to boarding school in a co-ed environment really reinforces friendship and collaboration with the opposite sex, and with people from other countries who you would not normally get to meet at that age,” she notes. “There are a lot of life lessons in diversity, which are so rewarding and lead to better outcomes.” Kathy developed tight-knit relationships in her two years at BCS that she still maintains to this day. “All my close friendships are from that time. Every year a group of us plan a weekend together: Debbie (Pritchard), BCS’76, and Derek Sewell, BCS’76, Jenny (Campbell), BCS’76, and Richard Vaughan, BCS’76, and David Bonnett, BCS’76. We are still very happy to be in each other’s company. I still see Tony, BCS’74, and Ian, BCS’80, Graham, and Sally Winser McLachlan, BCS’73, has been a friend since our Compton days.”

The significance of bonds is not lost on her children. “All of my kids recognized from an early age the value of solid old friendships, and would enjoy seeing my BCS friends together.” The co-ed environment also helped prepare her for a future as a mother of four boys, not to mention she “was already familiar with the cold hockey rink!”

Kathy describes her time at BCS as “extremely special. Everyone always greeted one another with a smile, and it was so easy to pick up conversations with others. I don’t remember cliques or groups that were restrictive. It encourages you to be interested in people, and to understand how laughter and shared history are hugely important to friendships.”

 While she grew up in a very philanthropic household (“My father was a huge volunteer,” she shares), it wasn’t until Reverend Ronald Owen reached out one day that she realized the difference that she could make by giving time to others. “Out of the blue, Ron Owen came over to me and said, ‘I think you should come with us, we’re doing a Monday night volunteer job.’” The ‘job’ was travelling to a nearby retirement home to spend time with its senior residents. “I didn’t know him at all and there was no reason for him to single me out, but that’s the sort of thing that happens at BCS. People scoop you up and say, ‘let’s do this.’” The weekly activity showed Kathy what volunteer work can do. “You can think you won’t make a difference, yet it clearly was a highlight for these people who were shut in after having led interesting lives. It gave them something to look forward to on Monday evenings, to see a bunch of us wander in and hear their stories.” This easy-to-do volunteer job stretched Kathy out of her comfort zone, “something BCS does so well.”

Kathy further developed her keen interest of the humanities at BCS, excelling in its subjects. “I loved Geography and History. I remember Stuart Bateman was the Geography teacher and he would give me different assignments than my peers to really challenge me.” He also awarded her the Geography Prize in her last year. After graduating from BCS in Form VI, Kathy attended Marianopolis College and Trent University, a small, primarily undergraduate school in Peterborough, Ontario. Along with fellow alumnae Gay Merrill, BCS’76, and Jane Henry, BCS’76 (who remains a close friend to this day), Kathy continued to study subjects she was passionate about including Geography and International Relations, graduating with a B.A. in the latter.

After Trent, Kathy took a job with a friend of her father’s doing research for a wine-importing business. “I met a lot of people and travelled, but I decided I needed more professional experience so I went to work for Young & Rubicam, the largest ad agency in the world at the time.” Young & Rubicam was great for training and working with clients, but Kathy was soon looking ahead. “I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do next. I thought to myself, ‘maybe I should flip it around and see what companies I would like to work for, as opposed to what I want to do.’ I had a great experience with American Express when I was robbed one time in Europe, so I sent them my resume.” That openness to opportunity and belief in instinct would lead her to the next step in her career. 

Kathy wore many different hats over nearly 10 years at AMEX, quickly moving to senior positions. From managing advertising agencies to developing a marketing training program and teaching brand management, to leadership responsibilities and strategic planning, Kathy’s years at the industry giant were dynamic and afforded her the balance to grow as a person and as a professional. She describes the brand as “ahead of its time,” and extremely multicultural—and this prior to a diverse workforce becoming a best practice.

As Kathy’s family grew, she found the executive team to be extremely accommodating of her working-mom schedule. “They let me work part-time and from home as a test for other markets. They wanted to see how it could function for a working parent to be doing less time in the office and more work at home. They were really ahead of the game.”

A near-decade passed quickly and in 1995, Kathy left the corporate world in order to spend more time with her family. Her “step back” was short-lived, as she was quickly offered a number of consulting projects. Thus began a successful second chapter as an independent consultant, which allowed her to also embark on what had always been her intention: volunteering. 

She currently sits on the Executive Committee of Human Rights Watch Canada and has served on the boards of two prominent independent schools. It was while her boys were attending Toronto French School that she received her first taste of board work. “I was happy to get involved; it had such a lovely culture and a genuine environment. All the kids just had so much heart.” The culture at TFS influenced Kathy to stay on even after her children graduated.

In 2014 she turned her attention to BCS, as part of the Head of School Search Committee and the 2015 Strategic Planning Steering Committee. “Strategic planning is such an important people piece. Determining what people think the organization needs and should do is such a great way to galvanize people to work together and feel fulfilled in their jobs. Having everyone contribute toward a larger goal reinforces the basic notion of being respectful—of others, of yourself, and of the needs of the organization and its constituents.”

This return to her alma mater was motivated by Tim Price, BCS’75, then-Chair of the Association Board. Kathy credits him with getting her involved in the school again. Linda Rodeck, BCS’81, has also become a close friend, thanks to their shared board work, and Kathy is very excited about Linda’s new role as Chair. “I think she’ll be transformative, much like Tim.”

A deep gratitude for how fortunate we are is why Kathy has been volunteering with Human Rights Watch since 2005. HRW is an NGO that works in over 90 different countries, exposing the most horrific violations of human rights and compelling those in power to secure justice. “I have been lucky to parlay an Advertising Communications background into something with an advocacy focus. It has enabled me to work on a variety of issues, learning about them from not only a geographic but also thematic experience, and to advocate in the most interesting situations and places.”

She presently sits on the International Justice Circle and is part of the International Council. Kathy is particularly invested in the HRW’s work with refugees, especially given the current political climate. “It’s so important that we use our voices to stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves. We don’t choose where we are born and no one aspires to be a refugee. These people deserve more than our government’s assistance, they deserve our respect and advocacy.” 

“A particularly rewarding experience has been playing a part in sponsoring a family from Syria. I was on an advocacy trip to Washington, and was asked to explain to Senators and Congressional leaders what the process was here in Canada and how it worked with our family. I felt so proud of Canada, and even showed pictures of our sons teaching our Syrian family to skate!” 

Kathy’s next adventure could well involve volunteering overseas, perhaps in a refugee camp, something she’s wanted to do since leaving university. Wherever it takes her, the path will undoubtedly be a wonderfully winding one—as all her previous journeys have been.

“You have to be open to things. So many young people are told ‘find your passion’ and ‘find your purpose.’ I think in many ways that is a disservice, especially when you’re young and learning to look after yourself. There is a lot of pressure. My feeling is, put a foot forward and see where it leads you. More often than not, the path starts to narrow, and you find more opportunities and excitement than you could have imagined.”

Bishop's College School is an independent English-language boarding and day school for grades 7 to 12 in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada.