SIT Commentary: How a global community came together during the pandemic
In our immediate community and around the world, the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus has brought sweeping changes to our lives, and some weighty decisions, as we shelter in place and take measures to protect our families, loved ones and livelihoods.
The global community at School for International Training has been compelled to make similarly high-stakes choices in recent weeks. With graduate and undergraduate programs across all seven continents, we found ourselves racing to repatriate more than 900 students just as COVID-19 began to spread.
SIT is a global institution that began with The Experiment in International Living here in Windham County in 1932, and grew to become part of World Learning Inc., based in Washington, D.C., our wider nongovernmental organization dedicated to international education, intercultural exchange and sustainable development. Every year, we send thousands of students on nearly 100 undergraduate and graduate programs from Antarctica to Zanzibar, so SIT is no stranger to civil wars, uprisings, natural disasters and other cataclysms. But this was unprecedented.
Over the past month, we faced some of the greatest challenges in our history as countries sealed their borders and grounded commercial flights — sometimes with less than 24 hours' notice — stranding hundreds of students abroad.
We are profoundly grateful for the unwavering support of the Vermont congressional delegation, including Sen. Patrick Leahy and his hardworking staff, the U.S. Department of State and the office of Gov. Phil Scott, in helping us meet this challenge. Working around the clock in collaboration with SIT and World Learning staff, our friends in Vermont and Washington helped us navigate and communicate with embassies and consulates around the world to bring our students home.
When commercial airlines were grounded in Morocco, Ecuador, Peru and Samoa, Sen. Leahy's office made sure SIT students had access to government-sanctioned and commercial flights. We were also grateful for the outstanding assistance of personnel at U.S. embassies and consulates who went the extra mile to safeguard our students.
SIT and World Learning faculty and staff also stepped up in an unprecedented show of support for this effort, working far outside their job descriptions in shifts both day and night to make sure our students were safe, housed, and fed in-country and booked on outbound flights as soon as they became available. We can now report that SIT has successfully repatriated all 920 graduate and undergraduate students who sought to return home.
With our students safely home, we can turn our full attention to the new set of challenges at hand. We're working to ease our students' transition from immersive, field-based experiences to an online learning platform so they can complete their academic credits without further disruption. On the ground, we're collaborating closely with state officials and supporting Brattleboro's first responders to make the SIT campus facilities available, as necessary, to assist in fighting COVID-19.
We're also confronting what COVID-19 might mean for our summer and fall programs abroad, while addressing components of our programs that have historically brought important economic and social benefits to Brattleboro: our on-campus summer residencies, the CONTACT Summer Peacebuilding program and our iconic commencement ceremony on the hill. SIT's response will be to pursue creative ways to maintain our signature programming at this very challenging moment.
For The Experiment in International Living, a program that has endured numerous wars and the Great Depression, this year will be the first time in its long history that high school students will not be sent abroad. Instead, The Experiment has migrated to a digital exchange platform, where we will explore new and innovative ways to extend our tradition of deeply immersive learning.
While we recognize that we're fortunate to have the 21st century technology and expertise to make these transitions, we also acknowledge the loss of life-changing experiential learning that has guided the personal and professional choices of so many of our alumni.
As we know, this pandemic is far from over. But thanks to our history, mission, values and people, SIT and World Learning are, and will always be, a global community. We draw strength from the breadth of our networks, the alliance of our friends, the diversity of our alumni, the dedication of our global staff and the welcoming support of communities the world over — from Isafjorour, Iceland, to Ushuaia, Argentina, to Brattleboro, Vermont. To all these and more, we offer thanks and look forward to a brighter future together.
Carol Jenkins is CEO of World Learning, Inc., and Dr. Sophia Howlett is president of SIT. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.
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