The PIE: How did you get introduced to the field of international education?
Sophia Howlett: As it so happens, I started off with a very typical academic career. As you can probably tell from my accent, I’m from Britain. I went to Cambridge University and then did my doctorate at the University of York. I was lucky enough to get an early permanent position in my field, which is Renaissance studies.
“I was, at the point, already hooked on international education development”
When I was about 27 years old [and] still wondering what would come next in my career, the war broke out in Bosnia. It was the first time there’d been a war in Europe since World War II. Everybody grows up wondering what they would do in a crisis or conflict situation, so I looked into getting a sabbatical in the hopes of going to the Balkans to be supportive in some way.
Of course, I didn’t really know what being supportive meant – and being a teacher of Renaissance studies was not immensely valuable for time or situation – but I found an organisation called Civic Education Project that was funded at the time by George Soros. The organization was taking academics on as volunteers on a volunteer wage to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
They didn’t send me to Bosnia. Instead, they sent me to Kyiv. At the end of a year there, they asked me if I would stay on to run the Ukraine program and start a program in Moldova. I said yes, absolutely. I was, at the point, already hooked on international education development and change management.
The PIE: And the rest was history, as they say. What brought you to SIT?
SH: After being a dean and teaching gender studies at CEU for over a decade, I began thinking about looking for opportunities to run my own institution. My husband is American, and we came to the United States seven years ago. I started out as a dean at Kean University, and after a few years there, I saw the job with SIT.
It was everything that I felt my career had been working towards: an international school that looked globally but was US-based and had a strong social justice mission. All those elements were really important to me.
The PIE: You’ve been with SIT since 2017. At the time you joined the institution, the SIT Graduate Institute faced some financial difficulties, which resulted in a transformation of the graduate school model, pivoting from Vermont-based to global programming. How did this shift come about?
SH: We were facing some financial difficulties when I joined – a US$2.9 million deficit, approximately. Everybody knew that we needed to make some big changes.
At the time, the Graduate Institute was primarily Vermont-based, campus-based programming, whereas the undergraduate programs were situated all over the world in about 50 different countries.
Given the challenges, we sat down and got creative. We developed the idea for global master’s degrees that would make use of the learning centres we had across the world.
“We wanted to keep both the campus-based opportunities while expanding our global opportunities”
The idea was that we would keep the Graduate Institute spirit and values, but marry them with the extraordinary venues that our undergraduate global campus locations provide to bring graduate students to study issues such as climate change or humanitarian assistance in crisis management in situ.
At the time, we wanted to keep both the campus-based opportunities while expanding our global opportunities. Unfortunately, after a year, we realised that campus-based programming was no longer financially viable. We had to make the shift at that point.
The PIE: How have all these changes played out on the ground?
SH: Over the past two years since we made that shift to off-campus programming, we now have, as of the fall, 11 master’s degrees out there, of which six are global masters and five are done in a low residency hybrid format. The nice thing about those is that even they are able to take advantage of our global footprint.
So for instance, our new low residency program in peace and justice has a residency in Vermont, and the next year they have a residency at our base in South Africa. The same with our sustainable development low residency program. It starts in Vermont, and ends up going to Oaxaca, Mexico. We’re trying to bring a global dynamic into everything we do.
The PIE: And how has this affected enrollments and future growth?
SH: The idea with all these new programs was simple. We said, “okay, let’s regroup, let’s get the finances right, let’s get the model right and then we’ll launch back upwards again”. As of now, we have 108 full-time equivalent students, so about 199 students annually.
Now that we’re now in the positive [financially] again, we’re working towards increasing enrollment year by year, but in a way where we’re not panicking.
“Our sustainable development low residency program starts in Vermont, and ends up going to Oaxaca, Mexico”
During the difficult times at the Graduate Institute, there was a lot of pressure on everybody. People were concerned about not meeting enrollments targets, whether we were marketing appropriately. Everyone was doing everything they possibly could but going through all those changes is very stressful for everyone involved.
So I wanted to make sure that moving forward that we had a model where we could aim to increase every year but not go for impossible targets, so that we could give ourselves the time to build something that was high quality, that was genuine, that was from the ground up.
The PIE: Are there any kind of articulation agreements between your programs and other institutions?
SH: I’m glad you asked because that’s something we’re aiming to put into the portfolio for next year.
We have a group of about six prospective schools that would like to develop articulation agreements with us. The idea is that we’d build that in right from the beginning and the program would result in a BA from the students’ home institution and an MA from the SIT Graduate Institute.
The PIE: And these are US-based schools?
SH: Yes, they are, but we do have very good relationships with a number of schools overseas, so that is something that I can see emerging in the future too.
The PIE: And most of your current students are Americans?
Yes, they are. This is something that we’ve been thinking about, whether we should internationalise more in the future.
The PIE: If your footprint is global, it makes total sense.
SH: Absolutely. For instance, we’ve had a lot of students through US accredited schools based overseas. For instance, we have really been successful in connecting with Yale-NUS College in Singapore. Many students that come on to our program come from there.
We’ve been able to expand outreach through these different American liberal arts schools and schools that are connected to US schools overseas. But we’d like to be more intentional.
“We’re also interested in working with schools in the UK”
We’re also interested in working with schools in the UK. That’s something that I personally would love to engage with, especially as I see the needs and know the system and the interests that some schools would have with some of our programs.
Many language programs, for instance, require immersive studies. To date, they’re very much relying on Erasmus and those sorts of connections. Depending on what happens with those relationships post-Brexit, there may be opportunities there.
For instance, why study French in Paris, when you can study it in Senegal with SIT? We’re very intrigued by those possibilities. But at the same time, we try to remain very cautious. By which I mean, we want to remain very respectful to the student groups that we already have.
Our partnership group, the colleges and universities we work with, they work with us because – I believe – they trust us. We want to be sure that whatever we do is performed appropriately and in partnership with the people who have worked with us for such a long time.