From study abroad to grad school, experiential learning drew this alumna back to SIT

SIT is a network you 'never want to lose', says Jennifer Tolman

February 6th, 2024   |   Africa, Alumni, SIT Graduate Institute, SIT Study Abroad

Although she's still in her 20s, Jennifer Tolman has a long history with SIT and World Learning. It started in high school, when, as a Vermont resident, she attended the prestigious current events program Governors Institutes of Vermont when it was held on the SIT campus in Brattleboro. Then, as an undergraduate she studied abroad with SIT not once, but twice, in Bolivia and South Africa.

Last year, Tolman completed her Global MA in Diplomacy and International Relations at SIT Graduate Institute. Now she's working as program associate with the Institutional Support and Program Implementation team at International Business & Technical Consultants, a USAID subcontractor, in Washington, DC. We met Tolman last March, when her graduate program cohort was studying in South Africa, where we talked with her about her broad range of SIT-related experiences and where she hoped to go with them.

Not only are you doing your graduate degree with SIT, you were also involved in SIT Study Abroad. Can you tell us about that experience?

I actually first heard of World Learning and SIT when I was in high school. There's this program called the Governor's Institutes of Vermont where you get to learn about current issues and youth activism. It was this fascinating two-week program that really opened my eyes to the world beyond Vermont, where I lived. So, from there, I then did two study abroad programs with SIT in college.

I find that with every SIT program, I grow as a person.

I was also familiar with World Learning, the parent organization of SIT, so I got an internship in Washington DC with World Learning’s Monitoring and Evaluation unit. And I am now back with World Learning and SIT in my master's degree program.

Why did you do two study abroad programs?

I loved the experiential component of the study abroad opportunities and the homestays are such an enriching learning opportunity. When I studied abroad with SIT in Bolivia I got to do my independent study project on Mennonite communities in rural Santa Cruz. I had seen people in traditional Mennonite or, in the U.S., Amish, clothing, and I was fascinated. So, SIT put me in contact with this nonprofit that worked with Mennonite communities.

I remember being on some rural road with my Bolivian taxi driver and ending up in this fascinating community with no electricity, and they were making cheese. The person who was hosting me in this community showed me around their cheese factory—it was just such a fascinating experience that I never thought I would have in my life. I still look back on that and I'm proud of myself for trying to explore something new and intimidating and really leaving my comfort zone and speaking Spanish with people for whom Spanish was also their second language, from high German.

That was one of my favorite experiences and something that I think I will always remember and return to, whether that's my personal growth collections or interviews, or any other experiences. In various internships and job opportunities that I've had, I've found myself continually going back to my SIT experiences as examples of intercultural experiences and ways I've worked through difficulties. So, I find that with every SIT program, I grow as a person.

Is that the reason you decided to do a graduate program with SIT as well?

I chose to do a graduate program with SIT in addition to my study abroad because I was really excited to go back abroad again, to learn in a non-American context, and also I really liked that it was a one-year intensive program.

When you were looking for grad school did you see other programs that were comparable in terms of the format?

I haven't really seen anything comparable to SIT in grad school format. I know that there are some one-year programs in Europe, but nothing that I’ve seen that has that the intercontinental component.

We started our master's program last fall in Washington DC, and then we went to Switzerland for three months. At the end of that time we went to Brussels, Belgium, and we are now in South Africa.

I am developing more connections in the international relations community and having a much more holistic view of what diplomacy can be and the different forms it can take.

Those are vastly different places and they present different scenarios. Have you found that to be beneficial – the different places and the perspectives that you're getting?

Can you tell us about your experiences on your program so far?

In this program, going between three continents—the US, Europe and Africa – has been really beneficial for my learning experience because you get to have that traditional western view of politics and the global order in the UN system. But then you also get to have a more complete view of global politics by learning from professors from the University of Cape Town. Now we're learning about BRICS, which is Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. We’re starting to learn about different networks and a new development bank, and see these groupings and organizations in a different light than you might learn about them in the U.S. or Europe.

You're studying diplomacy and international relations at a time when there's a debilitating conflict going on between Ukraine and Russia. Do you feel like you're getting a different perspective about that situation by being here?

It's been really interesting being in the master’s program during the war between Ukraine and Russia because when I was in Switzerland in the fall my host would be watching the news and she would talk about how terrible Russia was. Coming to South Africa has given us a really different because of course with the  BRICS network you have Russia as part of that grouping of countries. So I think that I've seen a less negative perception of Russia, but frankly just less discussion of Russia overall because it's in a vastly different region from South Africa. So, it's been a great opportunity to see what the most pressing issues are in the view of our professors and people in Cape Town.

Are there networks or connections that you've kept as a result of your various experiences with SIT and World Learning?

SIT has a really great network and community of people. I actually had planned to go to the Peace Corps before Covid hit, so I was talking with somebody that I knew from World Learning who had also done the Peace Corps, and she was giving me some really good advice. I'm still in touch with my undergraduate program director from Durban, South Africa, and I like to see his pieces in the newspaper here in South Africa. So it's exciting to maintain relationships with the people that you pick up along the journey.

Do you think those relationships will continue to help on your professional trajectory?

Yes, definitely. I have been in touch with people from World Learning as I look for internships for the summer, and I definitely see myself continuing to reach out when I'm curious about a topic that they specialize in or if in the future I am looking to shift career paths.

Where do you see yourself taking these experiences as a career?

Before I did my master's with SIT I had done some work with small nonprofits, in grant writing specifically. So I view this program as a transition to returning to Washington DC, where I did my undergraduate degree, and hopefully working for the U.S. State Department or doing international development work. I am especially interested in the field of monitoring and evaluation and making sure that international development projects are using money effectively and efficiently and having the outcomes that they say they want to achieve. I think this experience is putting me on a path to success with that. I am developing more connections in the international relations community and having a much more holistic view of what diplomacy can be and the different forms it can take.

Is there anything else about the program or your experiences in South Africa that you would like to add?

This is a really unique program. I think that either people have no idea what SIT is, or they know it and they love it, because once you enter into the SIT community it becomes a great network that you never want to lose.