International 'experiment' returns to Vermont roots

Tuesday April 16, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- The Experiment in International Living has its roots in Vermont.

So it seemed appropriate that, this past weekend, an "experiment" that has grown into a 23-nation group called Federation EIL held its annual general assembly in Vermont -- specifically, at the SIT campus in Brattleboro.

Last year, the assembly was held in Japan. Next year, it will take place in Ireland.

"Each general assembly reflects the culture and the place where it is held," said Ilene Todd, Federation EIL director. "This year gave us a special opportunity to return to where this experiment began."

That Experiment in International Living was founded 80 years ago by a Syracuse University sociologist named Donald Watt.

His initial idea, according to a recently compiled organizational history, was to arrange a trip abroad so there would be interactions between young Americans and young people from Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland "to gain greater understanding of one another while learning one another's language and culture."

The program evolved and grew, with Watt taking up residence in Putney in the late 1930s. At the time, the Experiment in International Living "was one of the first organizations of its kind to engage individuals in intercultural living and learning," administrators say.

Watt's program introduced the concept of placing its "experimenters" in the homes of host families to encourage development of personal bonds and firsthand learning.

Over time, "we found partners, and those partners developed their own parallel organizations" around the world, said Alvino Fantini, an SIT professor emeritus who also serves as an educational consultant to Federation EIL.

The federation is made up of those 22 international partners as well as the original U.S.organization, which in 1992 changed its name to World Learning. Each member of the federation is autonomous, with Todd serving as director.

Her office is in Brattleboro, but she said it could be anywhere in the world.

"My job is not to manage them, but to help them and support them in their work," Todd said.

That work has expanded greatly from Watt's original vision.

The federation's member organizations are involved in a wide variety of activities including hosting international visitors, educational group-travel programs, foreign language learning, academic study abroad, community service and home stays.

Administrators put it this way:

"At any given time, one might find a group of Japanese participating in a home stay and cultural-orientation program in New Zealand, Swiss students involved in community service projects in Ecuador, Italians studying English in Ireland and Americans learning about the history and culture of Ghana by working in a service project in a small village."

Representatives from the federation's organizations arrived Thursday at the SIT campus, which also is World Learning's headquarters.

Participants came from Albania, Argentina, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Chile, China, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Germany, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Morocco, Mexico, Nepal, New Zealand, Peru, Portugal, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.

A number of workshops and discussions covered topics such as fundraising, Internet marketing and social media, youth leadership programs and safety and security.

There was a welcome reception Thursday evening at Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. And members of the assembly had planned an afternoon of community service in Brattleboro on Friday before bad weather arrived.

"Unfortunately, we had to cancel that," Todd said.

Organizers said the assembly, which wrapped up Sunday, is a chance for far-flung representatives to talk face-to-face.

"First of all, it's to renew friendships and to get to know each other firsthand and personally," Fantini said. "Because everything we do is based on personal relationships."

He said all of the federation's member organizations play a critical role in maintaining international programs that are carefully tailored to each country.

"That's where the learning comes in," Fantini said. "It's a collaboration among all these partners."

Mike Faher can be reached at or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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