Where experience has been the best teacher

At the School for International Training, a small learning community in Vermont continues to reach across the globe after 60 years

Beatriz Fantini is a professor emerita at SIT, where she worked for 50 years. She is a freelance writer and has published short stories in her native Bolivia and in Venezuela. Her husband, Alvino Fantini, is an SIT professor emeritus.

BRATTLEBORO-Most universities were founded by people who believed in intellectual growth, accumulated knowledge and experience, and who had the means to make it happen. These visionaries were committed to the success of the institutions they created.

Some institutions were established with specific goals. For example, the founders of Dartmouth College wanted to ensure that Native Americans were afforded the opportunity of higher education. With the help of people who devoted time and money, other institutions such as Shaw University and Harper's Ferry sought to provide people of color with college educations. There are many more examples of institutions that were established with a special purpose. Each aimed to foster intellectual development in their students, in addition to their larger goals.

The history of the School for International Training (SIT) is unique. SIT was founded on the belief that experience is the best teacher-a concept later adopted by others and known as "experiential education." SIT shaped its curriculum around on the idea that students could learn much more by gaining firsthand experience in the field, processing and articulating what they learn, and applying those lessons in future endeavors.

This approach is based on a set of values that grew out of the desire to learn about oneself in the same way one learns about our culture and the cultural views of others, and a desire to bring about peace and live together in harmony. Underlying this method are the goals of respecting others, exploring diversity, and moving beyond one's own worldview.

Knowledge of and experience with other peoples and cultures were motivating factors in the mind of SIT's founder, Donald Watt, when he started the Experiment in International Living (now World Learning) in 1932. His experiences provided the stimulus for his approach to learning and education; having traveled and lived in Iraq (Mesopotamia), India and other places, Watt was convinced of the value of learning from experience.

Given these experiences, he went on to create an organization in which participants experienced a home stay abroad with a family in a small town or village. Both the "Experimenters" and the host families received cultural orientation throughout the process.

The key goal of all such exchange programs was to understand people and accept them on their own terms by living with differences and discovering commonalities.

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SIT was created in 1964, and the institution prepared early Peace Corps volunteers to travel to 36 countries. The founder and first director was Dr. John A. Wallace, an academic from Pennsylvania.

This contributed to the idea of creating an academic institution that would incorporate all the experiential activities that preceded its founding, despite the fact that Watt was concerned about the school becoming too traditional or "academic." But this model further influenced the design of SIT's programs, and it later became an accredited institution.

For many years, both the Experiment and the School for International Training incorporated similar experience based on these original principles. The letters traditionally placed after one's name upon graduation were an indication of achievement, but for most, experiential learning stood out as a highlight of their education.

Fortunately, many of the programs preserved the original experiential values of field learning and home stays; new trends in education were also followed, sometimes to the detriment of the institution's original goals. Some programs still stick to those initial goals and resist more traditional academic demands.

Graduate and undergraduate students who experience overseas internships and home stays invariably remember with fondness and nostalgia the value of the time they spent there, and how much they learned about different languages, cultures, perspectives, and worldviews.

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As SIT approaches its 60th anniversary, one wonders how much time during those years was spent informally, face-to-face, people-to-people, in places around the world.

Beyond the number of degrees SIT has granted, this anniversary is about honoring human connections that have taken place across cultures and around the world, and remembering the transformative on-campus experiences of thousands of individuals.

It is a time to celebrate how this place in southern Vermont continues to occupy so much space in our hearts and minds. It is remembering the days when classes were held in basements, outdoors, and even in barns.

Institutional growth is good, as long as we don't let go of what is so valuable to our students and to us: the reason this special place exists and what was behind its creation.

I came to SIT in 1966, when the academic programs were just starting, and I have seen its growth and development. For some people in town, we are still Sandanona - as it was called before it became known as SIT - or "that school on the top of the hill."

We have come a long way since 1964. Our undergraduate and graduate programs are happening around the world, and we now have a doctoral program also taking place abroad.

There are many alums from the late '60s and '70s still living in the area, and they, too, remember with nostalgia their life in Sandanona.

This Voices Viewpoint was submitted to The Commons.

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