BRATTLEBORO >> At the SIT Graduate Institute graduation ceremony, Bea Fantini was named Doctor in Humane Letters in recognition of her 50 years of service to the institution. Fantini, who was one of the original faculty members of the Master of Arts in Teaching program, will be retiring at the end of June as director of the Language and Culture Department.
She did not plan an academic career.
"I came to Vermont when I got married because my husband was working here," she recalled. "I went to school in journalism and public relations and I worked in that field in Venezuela. But English not being my native language, I was not expected to work in journalism."
Her husband, Alvino, encouraged her to begin teaching Spanish at SIT and its parent institution, The Experiment in International Living (now World Learning).
"I started teaching in 1966, and I never stopped," she said. "I loved it. It was an unexpected career change. I began teaching in the intensive language program for Experimenters who were going abroad in the fall and the winter," she said. "Then when the MAT program started, in 1968, I started teaching for the MAT program."
For 15 summers, she and Alvino went to Mexico to teach there. She began teaching Latin American culture and training other language teachers.
"I started developing African-language materials for the Semester Abroad program, and developing language materials for the Experiment," she remembered. "Then I started doing what I called 'light courses' — teaching Latin American Folk dancing, organizing Latin American Nights — things that I thought would enrich the students' lives."
The scope of her work expanded to the international stage, when the Peace Corps and other agencies hired her to do language teacher training abroad. Then when the Master of Arts in Teaching closed its Spanish major, she went into administration, organizing language courses for both SIT students and the community.
"I also helped with the Office of Development — contacting alumni, organizing SIT reunions, and in general doing things throughout the organization, helping whenever it was possible," she said. In 2004 she was given the World Learning Presidential Medal for her commitment to the values of the institution.
Fantini is retiring at the end of June.
"I've been with the organization for 50 years, and I wanted to devote more time to my writing," she commented. "Even doing part-time work — which I've done for the last two years — you do more. I want to do more teaching, and just relax — travel and cook.
She writes short stories in Spanish. Her first story was published when she was just 18.
"I like to write stories that tell about the culture, so they are set in Mexico, Venezuela, or Bolivia," she noted. "I write some poetry, but mostly short stories."
She has enjoyed her interactions with students.
"I've always found that they have incredible lives before they come here, and that excites me about being here, helping them become what they want, seeing through their eyes," she said. "It's very different looking as a teacher and as a student."
She said she also values "what the institution stands for — empathy with others, the desire to help, accepting different ways of life, different ways of looking at the world.
"Before I came here, I lived in different countries because my father was in the diplomatic corps, and I think that that prepared me for working here," she commented. "Every two or three years I was meeting people of different cultures. For me it wasn't new to think of meeting someone different."
A favorite moment was when her children decided to participate in Experiment programs.
"Something you don't expect — but they happened to like and believe in the purpose of the Experiment," she said. "There have been many highlights in the 50 years — seeing the students come back after 20 years, after 50 years; meeting someone who says, 'Oh, my mother was your student.'"
She enjoyed teaching Jack Wallace, who founded SIT and served as its Executive Vice President, and even enjoyed teaching Dr. Watt, the founder of the Experiment, when he wanted to learn Spanish. She said that he was not an easy student.
"He knew French and kept comparing," she said.
Although Fantini is retiring, she expects to stay involved with World Learning.
"I'm leaving the post, but I'll always be here to help people with things that I can do," she said.
Maggie B. Cassidy, a former French teacher at Brattleboro Union High School and a regular contributor to the Reformer, can be contacted at email@example.com.