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SIT saved my life

It wasn’t the classwork that made the Experiment in International Living special. It was the face-to-face international connections made on a hill in Brattleboro that have lasted a lifetime.


So the School for International Training is closing its graduate campus in Brattleboro. In true corporate-speak, the press release talks glowingly of how it will “transition our face-to-face programs [...] to global locations.”

I, for one, think that the school will lose a remarkable local experiment in international living.

And it’s ironic, since when I went there the place was actually called the Experiment in International Living, and that’s what I experienced, up there on that beautiful hill on the outskirts of Brattleboro, the one with the spectacular view.

As it transitions its program to sites around the world, World Learning will be blowing up a big part of its heritage here, which it once proudly called “World peace, one friendship at a time.”

* * *

For me, it started during the winter of 1988. I was living in the country of Panama and wondering how, after almost 14 years of hustling abroad, I could return to my own country with some remaining shreds of dignity and honor.

I was then winging it, teaching English as a Second Language mostly to Japanese families whose husbands were stationed in Panama as training for their future international corporate careers. I also taught conversation to the upper management of Shell Oil, and to a few odd ducks, like the widow of one of Panama’s former leaders.

The work was interesting but I was living on a tourist visa that required me to leave the country for a few days every three months. After four years of that, Panama requested that I become a legal resident.

If it came to that, I thought, I might as well be a legal resident in my own country. But I didn’t know how to do it without a resume, a credit card, a car, a job, or a home.

The obvious answer: get an advanced degree.

* * *

Enter the School for International Training.

I was easily accepted. They wanted students with international experience, and I had years of it tucked away in my back pocket.

So in late February of 1987, I packed up my clothes and my cat and landed in Brattleboro, not knowing what to expect, but I enrolled in something called a Program in Intercultural Management (PIM) for six months of course work followed by an internship, a thesis, a little more course work, and an MIA degree.

That would be a Masters in International Administration, whatever that means.

In the back of my mind, it meant I would get a job with a nonprofit and return to Panama or some other tropical paradise with a U.S. passport, a U.S. salary, and U.S. benefits.

Fat chance.

There were about 46 people in my class, which was called PIM 40. The students came from all over the U.S. and from Finland, Thailand, India, China, Indonesia, Nepal, Tanzania, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Pago Pago, Italy, Latvia, Lichtenstein, and Togo. Many of the Americans had served in the Peace Corps. We all had cross-cultural experience to burn.

We spoke many languages, including Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese, Malay, Kiswahili, Kutchi, Bengali, Hindi, French, Cebuano, Surigaonon, Finnish, Swedish, French, German, Latvian, Arabic, Urdu, Tagalog, Punjabi, Thai, Pulaar, and Greek. Two of us couldn’t speak or write in English; both got their MIA degrees at the same time I did.

In a very short time, we were molded into one class: we had the popular kids, the outcasts, the ones who kept to themselves because they weren’t sure about their English, the suck-ups, and the partiers. We had the serious students and the driven ones.

* * *

Everyone had an interesting story.

We had a Thai nun who spent most of her time caring for an off-campus monk.

We grew close with a man who was a devoted follower of the Aga Khan and served as the senior administrative officer for his educational service.

One man was far ahead of the rest of us in technology and spoke wistfully about the coming time when he could lie on a beach in Bali and work anywhere in the world.

Others — myself included — had never before touched a computer and had to be kept from throwing a chair through the screen when we couldn’t figure out how to print.

There was a young man who had such abundant pheromones that women lined up at his door.

There were several openly gay men; several more were closeted.

All these diverse personalities had to learn to work together. Small groups were a SIT tradition and a running joke. (I remember this quote: “On Judgment Day, the Lord will divide people by telling those on His right hand to enter His Kingdom and those on His left to break into small groups.”)

There was a plague of flip charts. I learned the meaning of “opportunity costs.”

I enjoyed studying and soon discovered that the school library was a joke. I found my way down the hill to Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro, and I’ve never really left.

My roommate, on the other hand, spent her time studying at the bar at the Tavern on Putney Road.

* * *

About a week into the course, an Indian woman joined us. She was brash and outspoken and a little bit crazy — you don’t want to drive with her in New York City — and she became a wonderful friend.

She later founded two nonprofits in India — one in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis and the other to save unwanted animals. She became one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in 2012; she also won the Legion of Honour in France.

Early on, I burst into a student’s dorm room looking for someone else and found a shy Chinese woman hiding there. Her English was flawed, but when I finally understood her story, I was in awe.

She and her family had been terribly victimized by the Cultural Revolution. Once things opened up, she became one of the first Chinese students to get a visa to study outside the country.

She became another great friend, and went on to hold important positions in the Asian Society, as a television newscaster for Dow Jones in China, as a high official in the Chinese government and — for reasons I’ve never clearly understood — the cultural director of a major American orchestra.

She later put her daughter in the Putney School. Now her daughter runs the orchestra. Going to Panda North with them was always a great adventure.

One American in our group had spent time in Fiji and returned with a beautiful Polynesian wife. I will always fondly remember the afternoon we spent sitting on the banks of Upton Pond making grass skirts out of dried rushes. There’s a picture of me in the yearbook dancing while wearing a scarf top, a grass skirt, and a big smile.

We bonded over our parties. We kept a carton of Rhinegold beer buried under a tree outside the dining room, which led — don’t ask me how — to a group of men wearing the cartons as hats. I have pictures if you don’t believe me.

Four marriages came out of my group alone. Two are still going strong almost 30 years later.

One time I spent three days — days when I should have been doing classwork — experimenting with different floating devices, searching for one strong enough to hold a single votive candle.

While I was doing this, other classmates were building a raft out of boards and floating barrels. Others were practicing water choreography. On the appointed day, my classmates danced for us in the water and on the raft; when dusk came, we sent candles floating out onto the lake and made it glow with a magical light.

A short time later, the light was mirrored in the air by the fireflies.

There wasn’t much about cross-cultural communication my classmates and I didn’t already know, which is why we were so comfortable partying. I can’t say I learned anything much from classwork, and most of my classmates felt the same way. I certainly don’t use the degree I earned.

* * *

Today, I think of SIT as an educational railroad roundhouse. Each of us was a broken train car limping along on a crooked track. We came together in that one blessed spot, were molded into a functioning group, learned to get along, and were turned around. Then each of us was chased out on another track — toward a bigger and better life.

For me, that better life began with culture shock and was followed by a stint in the school’s public-relations office. That led to a request from the local newspaper to write a piece for the back-to-school section.

I wrote about the beautiful richness Brattleboro experienced by having so many people from other cultures wafting around the town sharing their costumes, cultures, foods, and ideas.

The newspaper printed it. I opened the paper and saw my name in print for the very first time. Bells rung, the earth moved and, by the end of the day, I had a job as a reporter.

Farewell to the empty dream of doing mindless work hung over on rum in some tropical paradise.

* * *

Most of my SIT friends experienced something similar.

They may have come in as drunken Peace Corps frat boys, but they left as high-level managers of the latest technology. Or they founded nonprofits. Or they raised money for the U.N. Or they saved lives. Or they taught.

Certainly proximity caused sparks to fly. But I treasure the lasting friendships I made, the experience of spending six months jammed on a hillside partying with the whole of the United Nations, and the beautiful life I now enjoy as a result.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #441 (Wednesday, January 10, 2018). This story appeared on page D1.

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