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Aero/astro alum wins Annenberg fellowship

For the first time in its 20-year history, the prestigious Annenberg Fellowship has been awarded to a student from MIT.

Beginning this fall, MIT graduate Katonio A. Butler will spend at year at Eton College--perhaps the most exclusive boys' school in the United Kingdom--where he will act as an American "ambassador" to the 1,300 students, aged 13 to 18.

The annual Annenberg Fellowship, which was established by Walter H. Annenberg, a U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James, provides a stipend for a graduate from an American college or university to spend one academic year at Eton College. The selection usually alternates among students of Princeton, Stanford and Harvard.

However, this year Eton representatives included MIT students in the application process, and Butler was selected after a lengthy interview process.

Butler, 27, who in January received a bachelor of science degree in aeronautics and astronautics and history, with a concentration in economics, is excited about the opportunity to provide English students with an American perspective on issues of politics, race and class. Also, "it will serve as an excellent opportunity to learn about their history--the way they perceive the United States," he said.

Eton, situated across the Thames River from Windsor Castle, was established in 1440 by King Henry VI; its graduates have included royalty and prominent leaders in politics, medicine and law. Prince William, the son of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, attended Eton.

Butler, an African-American who comes from the small town of Pritchard, Ala., is the first person in his immediate family to attend college. He believes his unique cultural background will help him be an effective "ambassador" of both the United States and MIT.

"I plan on devoting a good deal of time to discussing issues of race and class--these are very important things, which affect everyone's circumstances," he said. "It's colored my experience throughout my life."

Also, Butler said, the college's science department was eager to work with him as a science teacher. Butler worked in the MIT Space Systems Laboratory from April 2004 to May 2005 as a researcher on the MIT LunarDREEM Project. He also won first place in a NASA in-situ resource utilization competition. Currently, he has been working as an archivist in the Industrial Liaison Program in the MIT Office of Corporate Relations.

As an Annenberg fellow, Butler will also be required to coach one or more sports. Butler, who has a second-degree black belt in tae kwon do, said he would either coach a martial arts class or saber fencing.

By turns soft-spoken and passionate, Butler thinks his keen interest in world events helped win him the fellowship. In his interview with an Eton official, "we spent quite a bit of time talking about politics. Specifically he mentioned how a number of graduates from Eton planned to take up some role in the British military as officers. Something that was at the forefront of the mind of many students was the Iraq war. I'm very much against the war; we talked about where the students stand and the British government's role."

Marsha Orent, project administrator in the MIT Office of the Provost, said that Butler's selection represents the first association between MIT and Eton.

"It is a great honor," Orent said. "We're hoping it is the beginning of a longer relationship."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 9, 2007 (download PDF).

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