An SIT Study Abroad Samoa student on the bus to the airport for their flight back to the U.S. (photo courtesy of Hayley Canal)

As the COVID-19 pandemic worsened this spring, School for International Training (SIT) initiated an exhaustive, global mobilization to repatriate 920 students studying on 56 undergraduate and two graduate programs, many of whom were in remote locations like the Amazon and the Himalaya.

“It took a village—in this case a global village—to move us forward,” said SIT President Dr. Sophia Howlett. “Everybody at SIT has been touched by this in some way and many people across the entire organization participated in the evacuation process.”

Informally dubbed “Operation Bring Our Students Home,” the repatriation effort drew on expertise throughout the World Learning Inc. family, including global security, diplomatic, and development and exchange experts, who joined forces with SIT academic, admissions, student affairs, university relations, and communications teams. SIT also collaborated with more than 200 college and university partners in the repatriation effort and received support from Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy and other members of Congress to get students on evacuation flights to the U.S.

“We have so many unique programs that we can turn to for strength,” says World Learning Inc. President and CEO Carol Jenkins. “This operation really underscored the ways we can leverage our different capacities to help us get through difficult times like this.”

The operation concluded after two weeks, with students in Peru and Samoa being the last to arrive home due to travel restrictions in those countries and on their routes home. Once students returned home, SIT migrated all courses online within ten days so that students could complete their academic credit requirements without jeopardizing their enrollment status or financial aid.

GoAbroad recognized SIT for these efforts with their 2020 Innovation in Crisis Response Award.

“This is a credit to the incredible work our faculty and staff did during this extremely challenging time,” says Howlett. “I am so proud of everything they accomplished.”

Since the spring, SIT has launched a suite of innovative, digital programs, including virtual internships and online language courses, to continue offering opportunities for international education and intercultural exchange during a time of travel restrictions. SIT was able to launch these courses quickly by harnessing best practices from SIT Graduate Institute’s years of experience offering part-time, hybrid master’s degrees and certificates. Because the new virtual programs are rooted in the expertise of SIT’s in-country faculty and staff, as well as its strong networks of local partners, they provide immersive, rigorous academic experiences.

"We have so many unique programs that we can turn to for strength. This operation really underscored the ways we can leverage our different capacities to help us get through difficult times like this."

Meghana Chithirala, a junior at the University of Arkansas, participated in SIT’s Kenya: Virtual Internship in Public Health in the Tropics program this summer and says the experience was “one of the greatest opportunities” she’s been given. Through the program she worked with a variety of units at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital in Kisumu, Kenya, where one of her tasks included examining patient case studies.

“These case studies made me feel like I was in the hospital in person, working in the different departments, instead of participating in the internship virtually,” Chithirala writes in a blog post about her experience.

In an interview with Condé Nast Traveler for an article on the impact of COVID-19 on study abroad, Dr. Howlett explains that the pandemic and pivot to digital programming has “simply accelerated changes” SIT already envisioned occurring in the sector over the next 10 years. Especially, as virtual programs offer the chance to make study abroad more inclusive by providing international education opportunities to students who are unable to take part in traditional, in-person programs.

SIT has continued to offer virtual programs alongside several of its in-country options this fall and plans to keep doing so in the spring and even as travel opens up again.

Regardless of the mode, says Dr. Howlett, it is clear students’ desire to “engage with the world remains undiminished.”

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