SIT Graduate Institute to expand international offerings, reduce Brattleboro staff

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BRATTLEBORO — Changes are afoot at one of southern Vermont's most storied institutions, and those changes will result in the loss of nearly 30 jobs at SIT Graduate Institute.

"We have been running a bunch of graduate programs in Brattleboro, full-time and face-to-face," said Sophia Howlett, president of SIT Graduate Institute. With facilities and personnel in more than 30 different countries, she told the Reformer on Thursday, it's time for SIT to offer many of those programs in those far-flung locations, rather than here in Brattleboro.

"We are in a unique position to build on the success of our study abroad programming — which continues to grow each year — to offer new kinds of graduate-level master's degree and certificate programs," said Howlett. "The graduate education system is continuously evolving. These changes mean that SIT can meet students where they are today."

The change in how SIT will offer its programs "comes at a time when students are seeking shorter, more cost-effective programs that equip them with real-world skills for a globalized market," states a press release posted on SIT's website.

The change does mean, Howlett told the Reformer, that SIT will be reducing its staffing in Brattleboro by nearly 30 positions.

"This will be difficult for our Brattleboro group," she said. "But the change puts us in a position to move forward with a more confident future and with a new model that is more responsive to the needs and interests of our prospective students. Our focus must be on the students and how we can best position them for success in a challenging and rapidly changing world. Our new model does that. Innovation is a hallmark of SIT, and expanding our global footprint will allow us to continue innovating for years to come."

While some positions have already been eliminated, said Howlett, others will be gone within the next five to nine months. Some current employees might have the option of staying in Brattleboro in different roles while others could move elsewhere while remaining on SIT's staff, she said.

Jenny Backus, a graduate of Brattleboro Union High School and Brown University who lives in Washington, D.C., was recently appointed to World Learning's Board of Trustee. Her grandfather, Jack Wallace, founded SIT with Gordon Boyce in 1964. She told the Reformer that everyone in Brattleboro should know that the board and staff of World Learning are committed to the vision, legacy and the future of SIT in Brattleboro. "The campus in Brattleboro is a critical part of the mission and the people who work there are essential."

Backus said the organization's new direction is possible because of the work people have been doing in Vermont since Donald B. Watt founded the Experiment in International Living 85 years ago in Putney. The Experiment moved to Brattleboro shortly after SIT was established.

"We have footprints around the world," she said, "and we are finally using those assets. Nonetheless, this is not a radical change. The bulk of our staff will remain and continue to work here and the board is doing everything it can to make sure we bring more people to town. All of us want to strengthen the local model."

The Brattleboro campus will continue to serve as headquarters for SIT Graduate Institute and SIT Study Abroad, as well as for The Experiment in International Living, World Learning's flagship program, and other World Learning administrative staff. It will also continue to house World Learning and other youth leadership programs. World Learning is the organization that oversees SIT

The new global master's degree format was developed to take advantage of SIT's in-place study abroad faculty and program centers. Pending accreditation, the first of these programs, a one-year MA in Climate Change and Global Sustainability, is expected to launch in fall 2018 with semesters taught consecutively in Iceland and Tanzania, states the press release. These are considered locations where climate change policy and innovation are prominent. During the third and final semester, students will conduct their practicums at any location in the world.

The press release also notes that other master's degrees in social justice fields are also in development.

Students from around the country and the world will continue to travel to Brattleboro for SIT's programs, said Howlett, though for shorter lengths of time than in the past. SIT will continue to offer a low-residency format in Brattleboro for its international education and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages master's degrees. With this option, students come to campus for approximately two to three weeks of classes, with the remaining coursework done online or in their practicums. SIT will also continue to host the CONTACT Summer Peacebuilding Program on the Brattleboro campus.

While the changes have been in the planning stages for a while now, said Howlett, SIT has seen, like other educational institutes in the country, a decline in enrollment for its programs in the United States.

"As with many other smaller colleges, we have been seeing this kind of decline over the past few years," she said. "And we saw a really sharp decline in terms of international students for January intake this year. This was a final signal that we need to move on to a different approach."

Howlett acknowledged that policies and statements coming from the White House have affected the perception of how welcoming the country might be to international students.

"With the changes over the past year, we have been under increasing stress on how best to welcome our international students and make sure they feel good about coming to the United States," she said.

Backus also admitted the current administration in D.C. has affected how people abroad view the United States.

"It's very clear it's harder for people from around the world to get into the United States," she said.

Despite the signals coming from the administration in Washington, D.C., said Howlett, Vermont itself has been able to maintain its reputation around the world as a welcoming location for people of all cultures.

"SIT is very rooted in the Brattleboro and Vermont community and sees itself as a Vermont organization," she said. "Social justice, climate change and sustainable development are issues we have embraced and the framework has been developed in Vermont. For that reason we are entirely dedicated to maintaining our organization in Vermont."

SIT will also continue to appeal to Americans who see themselves as ambassadors of all that is good about the United States, said Howlett, and in times like these, it's important that citizens travel the world as a reminder that the nation's core values of inclusivity, diversity and compassion remain.

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.


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