John Ungerleider: Reckoning the loss of students at SIT

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At the turn of the year it is customary to not only acknowledge successes, but losses from the past year. Brattleboro suffered one loss that has not been clearly reckoned in our local press: the loss of students on the School for International Training (SIT) campus.

Last January SIT announced it would not admit an on-campus class of graduate students for this past Fall 2018 semester, choosing to transition to low residency, online, and internationally-based programs. That has meant the dormitories have gone dark, empty this September for the first time since 1964 when the beloved Jack Wallace opened the doors as SIT's founding president. Since then, annual classes of graduate, and for a few decades undergraduate, students on campus focused on international development, management and education, building capacities for peacebuilding, intercultural communication, and language teaching.

Of course dozens of faculty and staff layoffs over the past year will take a toll on consumer activity in town, but the biggest hit to the area will be from the loss of students coming to live here each fall - in the best times up to 250 populating the various SIT programs. Many of these students lived in houses and apartments around town, ate in area restaurants, drank and danced at the bars that have come and gone in Brattleboro.

More significantly, many of these graduates went on to lead and even found important local organizations: think Groundworks, Food Connects, The Root Social Justice Center, Brattleboro and Greater Falls Community Justice Centers, Empty Bowls, and more. They impact the next generation of students as well, through teaching, counseling, and administrative roles at our local public and private educational institutions.

Each year many of these students came from far across the globe to bring an international spirit to our community - needed diversity to a largely homogenous region. Our area is renowned for its surprising international currents, from retired ambassadors (generations of Bunkers and Galbraiths) to annual waves of students bringing global expertise.

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How many people settled in this area because of coming to study or work at SIT? Even siblings followed to become prominent in a range of local enterprises. SIT has been a key driver of the southern Vermont economy, as well as its global flavor.

SIT brought me to Brattleboro, as a professor for 29 years teaching peacebuilding and conflict transformation. Who could imagine such a job even existed? What a run. So many cherished moments and so much learned from interacting with these remarkable young leaders from all over the world, and not only in the classroom. Students and teachers graced my home for meals, sharing ideas and cultures of food, music, and fashion.

I also got the chance to start the Youth Peacebuilding and Leadership Programs that have now hosted over 12,000 young people from communities in conflict, the majority of whom spent part of a summer in southern Vermont. I know many have seen the lovely Iraqi teenagers over the past 10 year at the Farmers' Market or around town on a local culture "scavenger hunt." While all the jobs managing those youth programs have migrated to parent organization World Learning's offices in DC, I hope participants will continue to come here. (The Governor's Institute on Current Issues and Youth Activism will be moving to Landmark College next summer.)

To close, I let faces randomly pop into my memory from places like: Syria, Yemen, Japan, China, Turkey, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Morocco, Mongolia, Tunisia,, Libya, Egypt, Bolivia, Cyprus, Italy, N. Ireland, UK, Denmark, Germany, Australia, Burma, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Bosnia, Serbia, Nicaragua, Russia, Costa Rica, Jordan, Mexico, Sudan, Oman, Argentina, Congo, Rwanda, Indonesia, Philippines, Korea...

Let the names of their countries reflect the windows into their worlds of rich humanity, of personal and cultural expression, that have graced our community for 54 years. We are so grateful they have come to spend time with us here. How can we work creatively now to keep alive the brilliant international heritage of southern Vermont in the years ahead?

John Ungerleider currently teaches at Community College of Vermont, Marlboro, Brandeis, Windham Probation, and Brattleboro Area Jewish Community. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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