Leslie Watt: A partner in pursuit of a peaceful world

March 7th, 2024   |   School for International Training, SIT

Leslie Watt (nee: Leslie Barbara Somers)
1896 to 1991

Leslie Watt

During Women’s History Month we’re spotlighting some of the impactful women of World Learning, School for International Training, and The Experiment in International Living. This series seeks to showcase their extraordinary journeys and indelible contributions to our more than 90-year history. Each of them, in their own way, has helped us create a more sustainable, peaceful, and just world.

In 1922, Leslie Somers and Donald Watt began a life’s journey together that not only would take them all over the world, it would lead to the creation of The Experiment in International Living. Leslie took her first extended trip to Europe and the United Kingdom one month after their marriage. She went on to make countless trips by ship and airplane, accompanying her husband to Asia, Africa, and South America as well as Europe.

Donald and Leslie Watt

Dr. Watt's experiences working with young people abroad had influenced him to create The Experiment. When it was launched in 1932, Leslie, a University of Rochester graduate, was employed as secretary, bringing her talent for writing and attention to details. In the days before computers, she wrote hundreds of letters and aerograms, assisting in organizing and conducting groups for student travel abroad. Notebooks and letters, editorial remarks on institutional reports, identification tabs on file folders, and personal papers reveal her input from the early days on the direction and mission of the future organization.

The Watts moved to Putney, Vermont, which became headquarters of the original Experiment and its staff. Leslie was a gracious host to the many visitors, both national and international, who came to their unique home, called Himmel House. Items collected throughout their travels and other architectural features reflected their appreciation for the many cultures they encountered.

The Watts in Peru

In many ways, Leslie Watt is the unsung hero of the early Experiment. Her handwriting and photos are found everywhere in the history of their efforts toward building peace through understanding. Her role was essential to the success of the organization as it grew from The Experiment into School for International Training to World Learning.

The Watts retreated from everyday administration in the 1950s, but throughout her life, Leslie never lost her zeal for the values and mission of the organization.

This article was researched by World Learning Institutional Archives volunteers Lou Witherite and Alvino Fantini.