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The World Learning campus in Brattleboro.

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Incoming SIT president looks to shape school’s future

Sophia Howlett brings worldwide educational and administrative experience to her new post

BRATTLEBORO—Sophia Howlett has worked in more than 40 countries during her career as an educator, administrator, researcher, and writer.

But Howlett says her new post — as president of SIT in Brattleboro — represents a fresh challenge. That’s because she sees opportunities for change and possible expansion within the school’s graduate institute and study abroad programs.

Howlett is scheduled to take SIT’s top job in early January, and she said she’s eager to work with faculty and students to “shape a vision” for the school’s next chapter.

“What really attracted me to SIT was, they’ve got a real history there, but there’s also a recognition that there are new challenges,” Howlett said. “It’s a different world, a rapidly changing world, and it’s time for SIT to think about what it’s going to do for the future.”

SIT’s roots stretch back to 1932, when The Experiment in International Living was founded. The purpose of that experiment was to send U.S. students to other countries to “improve understanding across cultures and nations.”

In 1964, the Experiment in International Living founded the School for International Training, or SIT. It originally was designed as a training center for early Peace Corps volunteers, but both SIT and its parent organization have changed considerably in the past half-century.

The Experiment in International Living became World Learning Inc. in 1992. The nonprofit’s education, exchange, and development programs now extend to more than 60 countries.

And what’s commonly referred to as SIT encompasses two institutions: The SIT Graduate Institute offers master’s degrees, certificates, and professional development; and SIT Study Abroad maintains undergraduate semester and summer programs in more than 30 countries.

First official president

Until recently, SIT didn’t have its own president. That position was created about a year ago, and Donald Steinberg — chief executive officer of World Learning — also has been filling the president’s post on an interim basis.

So in an official sense, Howlett “will be the first president in the history of this organization,” Steinberg said. “This recognizes the importance of the School for International Training and its role in Vermont — its role as a major employer in the region, as well as the role she will be playing as a public figure.”

Steinberg said Howlett’s hiring is the result of a five-month search process that involved about four dozen applicants. The final four were invited to Brattleboro for interviews and also visited SIT’s Washington, D.C., location.

Howlett “emerged without question as the preferred candidate, both in terms of her international experience and her background in education,” Steinberg said.

Howlett’s resume spans the globe. She acknowledges that she was “bitten by the travel bug” while growing up, but she also said there was a specific point in her academic career when she decided to expand her worldview.

Just as she achieved tenured status at Teesside University in England, major changes shook Europe via the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“There was so much going on, especially in Europe,” Howlett recalled. “And the question was, ’How are you going to step up?’”

She soon got involved with the Civic Education Project, which Howlett describes as a sort of “Peace Corps for Professors.” She was dispatched to Ukraine, where she “became really engaged with what I could do to support change.”

Relevant experience

Howlett eventually landed at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, where she spent 15 years as a teacher and an administrator. Her work at the university included founding a program focused on international higher education development for emerging democracies.

There are many parallels between Central European University and SIT, Howlett said.

“That was also a small graduate school — private and highly internationalized,” she said. “We had 127 nations represented there.”

Howlett’s career also includes work with Open Society Foundations, AMIDEAST, Institute of International Education, Academic Training Association and the Swiss Development Agency. She’s been a fellow with the Open Society Institute and a visiting scholar at Harvard University.

Additionally, Howlett has a doctorate in European Renaissance Philosophy and Literature. Her 2016 book, Marsilio Ficino and His World, focuses on an Italian Renaissance philosopher and priest.

Howlett has spent the last four years at Kean University in New Jersey, working as associate vice president for academic affairs. At Kean, she was deeply involved in establishing the university’s campus in China.

Kean, which bills itself as New Jersey’s third-largest public university, “managed to put me in all these leadership roles all over the place, and to kind of get me out of my comfort zone in terms of having been a dean at a small graduate institute,” Howlett said.

Room for growth

Now, she’s hoping to bring that experience back into the world of a smaller, international graduate program. Howlett says she “absolutely” sees room for growth at SIT, though she isn’t yet ready to discuss many specifics.

“I really want to get there and take a good look at everything and get to know the faculty and staff,” Howlett said.

One topic that may be up for discussion, she said, is whether SIT should offer a doctorate program.

Steinberg also is thinking about expanding SIT’s academic reach. “There are new opportunities out there,” he said. “There are opportunities to be linking more closely with other academic institutions in the region. There are opportunities to be expanding our distance-learning programs.”

SIT Graduate Institute currently offers five degree programs. Steinberg wonders whether it’s time to assess those offerings to determine how they align with students’ interests.

“We are constantly thinking about where our niche in the graduate education market is,” he said.

Steinberg said he most appreciates Howlett’s ability to see SIT and World Learning with a “holistic vision” that ties the Vermont campus to all of the organization’s operations worldwide. That will be vital, he said, for the work that lies ahead.

“She has her plate full,” Steinberg said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #387 (Wednesday, December 14, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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