An aerial view of the School for International Training campus in Brattleboro.
Courtesy photo
An aerial view of the School for International Training campus in Brattleboro.

SIT marks 60 years of educating ‘global citizens’

Leahys will attend the celebration and will meet with refugees, as the nonprofit organization and college looks back at its roots of promoting cross-cultural understanding

BRATTLEBORO-In 1961, President John F. Kennedy's brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, was tapped to assist in training college-aged youth for the launch of Kennedy's Peace Corps program, leading to the establishment of the School for International Training (SIT) in 1964, which allowed university students to study abroad.

Now, 60 years later, SIT acts as the academic arm of World Learning, Inc., a global nonprofit focused on development and exchange with an umbrella of programming, educational opportunities, and training at home and abroad.

This week, the School for International Training will celebrate 60 years by "spotlighting the institution's unique history and its dynamic future as a 21st-century global university," according to a news release.

Headlining the event, which will take place at their world headquarters on Kipling Road in Brattleboro on Friday, April 5, will be former U.S. senator Patrick. J. Leahy and his wife Marcelle Leahy, who will speak about "their decades-long experiences and vision for Vermont's future in the global landscape."

With the Experiment in International Living and the World Learning program under the same nonprofit corporate umbrella, this triad of worldwide educational opportunity is vast; each division was added to its repertoire of programs and services as the organization grew and changed.

Prior to the establishment of SIT, Donald Watt founded the Experiment in International Living in 1932 "as a way to improve cross-cultural understanding," according to the organization's website. Shriver was an alumnus of the Experiment and modeled the cultural orientation of the Peace Corps program on its methods.

The Experiment invited American teenagers to attend summer camp with Swiss, German, Belgian, and French youth, and offered family-based home stays in those countries. By 1954, the program had expanded to countries around the world.

Those who lived in Brattleboro from the 1950s through the early 1980s will well remember greeting throngs of foreign students disembarking from the Experiment's bus and working on their English skills as they shopped downtown. Students and teachers from all over the world descended on SIT's campus, especially in the summertime.

Over the following 20 years, the nonprofit began to add undergraduate degrees and international development opportunities, and in 1992, with a global reach, the Experiment was rebranded as World Learning. The Experiment in International Living continued as summer high school programs.

A legacy of shaping new Vermonters

While visiting the campus, the Leahys will also meet privately with refugees who are a part of the New Vermonter Education Program.

Hosting refugees is nothing new for SIT. In 1956, the Experiment invited evacuees from Hungary to live in Vermont, staying with local families during the Hungarian Revolution.

In 1978, the organization was called upon once again to assist the State Department in creating language instruction, job training and cultural orientation materials for refugees arriving from Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War.

More recently, in 2020, SIT and World Learning began hosting Afghan refugees on their Brattleboro campus.

Partnering with the Ethiopian Community Development Council, the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, and the Tutorial Center in Bennington, the first wave of Afghans included 100 refugees.

Since then, World Learning and SIT faculty, staff, and local volunteers have provided English-language instruction, temporary housing, and cultural-orientation classes to over 300 refugees from Afghanistan, Ukraine and other countries.

"Refugee resettlement needs a whole-community approach," says Carol Jenkins, CEO of World Learning. "As pillars within their communities, higher education institutions have incredible potential in this context, and World Learning's program in Vermont serves as a powerful model for others to follow."

Patrick Leahy is proud of Vermont's welcoming culture, and appreciative of our state's hospitality.

"As the first stop in Vermont for newcomers from Afghanistan, Ukraine, and elsewhere, World Learning and SIT bring together staff, faculty, alumni, and neighbors to offer language, cultural orientation, and friendship in a program that is a national model for effective refugee integration," Leahy said in the news release.

He continued, "SIT students and faculty started making a difference for our world from the day this unique and game-changing institution was created here in southern Vermont in 1964, and they haven't stopped for the past 60 years. Training Peace Corps volunteers, educating Nobel Peace Prize winners, changing lives and perspectives, and leading the way with bold innovative programs."

Leading in a time of change

Dr. Sophia Howlett, SIT's president, is sitting in her Main Street apartment, facing a view of Wantastiquet mountain and the Connecticut River. She's just returned from a home stay in Samoa, and notes that home stays with families are still a mainstay of SIT programming.

Now halfway through her second term as president, Howlett considers SIT "a well-kept secret to many, but if you know us, you really know us and appreciate what we do."

"I meet alumni all the time," she says. "In fact, when I was considering this job, I began to realize that about two-thirds of my friends had already been involved with the organization!"

In 2018, SIT pruned approximately 30 positions as part of a major reorganization that moved its full-time graduate programs from Brattleboro to satellite campuses in more than 30 countries.

Howlett jokes that sometimes people will stop her in the grocery store and ask if SIT is now closed.

"Not at all," she says, laughing. "In fact, we're bigger and more impactful than we've ever been!"

Despite the recalibration, Brattleboro remains the home base for World Learning Inc.

"The entire campus is used for events, like our celebration this Friday. We also use our housing in the summer for residencies for students. Brattleboro is our headquarters, and all our alumni continue to feel that Brattleboro is our home," she says proudly.

"We're like the outside of a beehive - everything might look more quiet than in previous years on our campus," she says. "But, in fact, inside, we're running our programs, in places all over the world from our base in Vermont."

What's changed from previous decades when foreign students were seen downtown is that, like many educational institutions, SIT is now more global than ever.

"Vermont is still the mother ship, but now our students aren't solely in classrooms on our campus," Howlett says. "Instead, they are traveling all over the world to do their learning."

As the world has changed, so have the programs available through SIT.

Students can now pursue a master's program in climate change and sustainability, beginning their training in Iceland for the first semester.

The program moves to Zanzibar. There, "students explore the effects of climate change on tropical ecosystems; communities of the Indian Ocean; and best practices for balancing natural resources with sustainable growth."

"Their last semester, students can choose to study anywhere in the world," says Howlett. "We're educating future leaders about climate change, and their learning will be an ongoing challenge."

"There will be likely be forced migration as the effects of it shifts our ability to live in some parts of the world, potentially creating more refugees than we've ever seen before," she says.

SIT Graduate Institute now offers numerous diverse, full-time graduate programs that include Sustainable Development Practice; Diplomacy and International Relations; and Intercultural Service, Leadership & Management.

They also offer a doctorate program in global education, the only program of its kind.

SIT's 60th birthday event will reflect the programing it offers, with panel discussions such as "Challenges and Opportunities for Sustainable Rural Development" and "Internationalization at Home and Abroad: Vermont as a Window to the World."

"Over six decades, we have achieved accreditation as a higher education institution, expanded into a graduate institute, and built an extraordinary study-abroad program, including the International Honors Program," Howlett says.

What's next for SIT?

Howlett describes herself as a planner. "At World Learning and SIT, we're all about impact," she says. "We're asking, what is the next phase within the context of the global community? What more can we be doing?"

Discussions about programing include more focus on sustainability, interchange with Indigenous communities, and how SIT/World Learning can make programing more inclusive and available to all.

"We want to help make even more people aware of who we are and what we do," Howlett says, noting that she is "always open to hearing how World Learning and SIT can contribute to make Brattleboro a more vibrant community."

"I live here, too," she says. "I want to see an energetic downtown and community. Maybe there are more ways we can do that in the future."

This News item by Fran Lynggaard Hansen was written for The Commons.

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