School for International Training adapts global education in a pandemic

President Sophie Howlett of the School for International Training in Brattleboro. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — Not until mid-March did most people in the United States begin to understand the impact that Covid-19 would have on their everyday lives. 

But Sophie Howlett, president of the Brattleboro-based School for International Training, got an early glimpse of the pandemic’s reality months earlier.

“The first sign to us that something was really wrong was probably in January — maybe even as early as December of last year,” Howlett said.

SIT, an accredited college that runs immersive education programs for undergraduate and graduate students around the world, began to hear from program leaders in China and Mongolia that Covid-19 might shut down borders and everyday life there.

The organization chose not to send its China program into the field, and in mid-January rapidly evacuated those already in Mongolia. 

“We were lucky, because we got out of Mongolia just before the government stopped everything,” Howlett said.

What began as scattered worries over the fate of programs near the virus’s epicenter soon grew into an all-out evacuation effort for hundreds of students around the globe.

As international borders closed in March, administrators and staff worked around the clock to get students home from 56 programs in over 40 countries, Howlett said.

By April 11, SIT had repatriated 920 students — who had been studying in programs from the Amazon rainforest to the Himalayas — back into the U.S. That effort, dubbed “Operation Bring Our Students Home,” earned SIT an award for crisis management, and was the first time the institution faced a question it has been navigating since: How should international education work during a pandemic that largely prevents travel? 

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In some ways, the question was a welcome one, Howlett said, “because we’re not going to be able to solve any of these problems by sitting in America and thinking within our borders.” 

Financial strain worsens

When Howlett became SIT’s president in 2017, the school — part of World Learning, an international education nonprofit organization  — was  $1.7 million in debt. It had been in danger of going under for a while, Howlett told VTDigger in January, as enrollment had been dropping steadily.

After she joined SIT, the institution cut 23 positions to save money, and in January 2018 ended full-time programs at its expansive Brattleboro campus in favor of teaching exclusively through its network of global campuses. Those efforts helped, as the school ended 2019 in the black and was able to add two new master’s degree programs.

In Vermont, SIT isn’t alone in adapting to a challenging higher education landscape, as alternative education and small colleges alike navigate financial strain. 

Those challenges have in some cases been heightened by the pandemic: Albany College of Pharmacy’s Vermont campus announced it would close its doors last month, and the Montpelier-based New England Culinary Institute said it will shut down in the spring.

SIT cut 14 additional positions because of Covid, according to Kathryn Schoenberger, communications manager for World Learning. (SIT has a staff of over 300 worldwide, with 148 positions in Vermont). Still, Howlett said that SIT has managed to keep all but one of its 56 campuses around the world operating, by continuing study abroad programs virtually and developing new ones that fit students’ interests during the pandemic.

SIT even added two more master’s degree programs this fall, one in global leadership and the other in humanitarian assistance. It offered a virtual internship this summer through its school in Kisumu, Kenya, where students researched tropical diseases alongside doctors at the Kenya Medical Research Institute.

Those programs sought to give students ways to better understand how Covid-19 is affecting global issues, according to Howlett. They also pushed SIT to expand its virtual and online capabilities.

“I think it’s really clear that, when we look at a crisis like a pandemic, the solutions are not solely national solutions,” she said.

SIT recently commissioned teachers in its network around the world to offer online language classes for “critical global languages” — including Arabic, Nepali, Tibetan, Quechua and Vietnamese — that support SIT’s mission of giving students global development skills. Eleven students have enrolled in those classes this fall, according to Schoenberger, and Howlett hopes to add more languages in the future.

“The focus is on languages that are not going to be accessible at most schools, but which we believe fit with our mission,” she said. 

In Vermont, Abenaki language teachers have similarly seen the pandemic afford new opportunities to revitalize a language with few remaining speakers.

Travel limitations

A significant challenge, Howlett said, are the pandemic’s barriers blocking undergraduate students from physically traveling to SIT’s campus locations: Overall enrollment is down significantly, from 919 students in the fall of 2019 to 138 in the fall of 2020.

After SIT held all its programs remotely last summer, some of its partner universities allowed students to travel this fall. The organization had 20 students enrolled in programs in Iceland and Uganda last semester.

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“But there are other schools that have just said, look, nobody’s going anywhere. And that’s perfectly understandable,” Howlett said. Middlebury College, one of SIT’s regular partner schools, canceled all of its fall 2020 study abroad programming, citing travel restrictions as the main roadblock.

The enrollment decline could lead to a 94{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} drop in SIT’s enrollment-based revenue in fiscal year 2021 compared to last year, according to Schoenberger, which regularly makes up a substantial part of its budget. Part of those losses have been made up by a federal Paycheck Protection Program grant totaling $5 million, and an additional $2 million in Covid-related grant relief from the federal government.

That money, as well as funding from private donors, has helped keep SIT’s global sites open and awaiting students’ return, which Howlett hopes students will be able to do as vaccines become more readily available. 

“Now, it doesn’t mean that the programs are running there,” Howlett said. “Essentially, we have learning centers that are on hiatus. But that was our commitment — that where we could, we would keep everywhere open.”

Restructuring has helped

Although this has been “an extremely challenging year” for SIT, Howlett said, the institution’s “foundation and longer-term outlook remain strong.” 

Adam Grinold, executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., which has long collaborated with SIT on local initiatives, described the school as a valuable partner to the town through the pandemic. As the economic development agency has worked over the past year on a grant project to welcome New Americans to the region, SIT offered consulting on how to best meet the needs of new arrivals.

Brattleboro’s School for International Training is part of the World Learning campus. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

The changes SIT implemented before the pandemic puts the school in a position to weather more challenges down the line, Grinold said. 

“When SIT did their restructuring, everyone locally was very scared and nervous about what that was going to mean,” he said. “But those institutions who are finding ways to differentiate are going to stay and thrive, and by all accounts, SIT was proactive in taking steps to ensure that they’re here for another 65-plus years.”

The pandemic has upended international education, but Howlett said SIT has taken steps to keep campuses around the world open for the return of international learning on a pre-pandemic scale.

“This means that come the summer and beyond, SIT is almost uniquely ready to relaunch globally. Everybody is ready to ‘go’ and can’t wait to start teaching and engaging with students once again,” Howlett said. “We all fundamentally believe that when it’s safe to do so, Vermonters and other Americans will have a renewed interest in engaging the world through life changing experiential educational programs.”

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