Experiment in International Living: 85 years of traveling the world

BRATTLEBORO — In the summer of 1932, a group of young Americans sailed for Europe following the lead of a visionary who believed that "people learn to live together by living together."

The visionary was Donald B. Watt, a young scholar from Lancaster, Penn., whose experiences of living in Mesopotamia, Iran, India and other places convinced him that experiencing life with people of different cultural backgrounds was the best learning experience to get insights into other cultures and the people. He persuaded a group of classmates and friends to be part of what he established as The Experiment in International Living. Some of these friends and classmates became the first trustees of the young organization that after 85 years is the pioneer in summer educational exchange programs.

The first group was not a complete success. The participants — French, Germans, Belgians, Swiss, and Americans — tended to stick together most of the time. It was for the second group the following summer that Watt decided that not only the Americans had to live with Swiss and German families, but that together the participants should have a common experience, like traveling in the country. So the two main features of all programs then and now, are the home stay and the informal trip with their counterparts — usually host sisters or brothers.

It was a ground-breaking program. There were groups of 10 students plus a group leader and they all received pre-departure orientation before embarking on a summer experience abroad.

Through the 85 years of the organization (now known as World Learning), and especially in the peak years of the 60s ad 70s, groups went to countries like Poland, Hungary, Norway, Austria, the former Czechoslovakia and Soviet Union, Holland, Switzerland, Iran, Japan, Spain, Denmark, Italy, Turkey, Sweden. World War II, forced the Experiment to look for other countries, mostly in Latin America — like Peru and Mexico. This summer (2017) a collection of 76 group leaders met at World Learning's School for International Training campus in Brattleboro to receive training before meeting their students and going for their summer programs to 25 different countries.

The impact of the program is still great and the idea of summer exchanges has remained as a valuable educational experience for young people. The example has been replicated by other, newer organizations that have followed the example of the Experiment. The home stay is probably the best way to enter and get to know another culture.

The experience is so powerful that in 1962, the director of the US Peace Corps — Sargent Shriver, an Experimenter to Switzerland himself — asked the president of the Experiment to design and conduct training for future volunteers. He did this convinced that the preparation he had as an experimenter and later as a group leader, combined with the home stay, was the perfect preparation for volunteers.

Because of this, the Experiment bought a former farm — Sandanona — to use as a training site. The main headquarters remained in Putney (the site of Greenwood school today) where Dr. Watt built a Swiss-type chalet and moved his family there so his children could attend Putney School. In 1965, Jack Wallace (vice-president of the organization) created The School for International Training as an academic institution specializing in language teaching and cross cultural training. Years later, the Experiment headquarters moved to the SIT campus. The graduate programs at SIT continue to this date. In addition, SIT Study abroad sends an average of 2,000 students every year to 30 countries around the world.

The Experiment and its mottoes are still pretty much in practice: "Expect the Unexpected," "Turn a Crisis into an Adventure," and "Learn to Live Together by Living Together." They are not only printed in the organization's literature, they exist in participant's lives. The founder's vision of achieving "peace through understanding" is still guiding all programs.

For 85 years of successful international exchange, this organization in the hills of Vermont (and in Washington, D.C.) continues to change lives and give students an opportunity to see the world in an intimate way and to know cultures and their people in a unique way.

Beatriz Fantini lives in Dummerston. She was an Academic Director for SIT Study Abroad to Italy and retired last year from World Learning after 50 years of working with many of World Learning and SIT programs.


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