SIT and the Peace Corps: Learning with ‘your mind and your heart’

Why Peace Corps volunteers are drawn to the SIT experience

April 9th, 2020   |   Peace Corps

Peace Corps and SIT alumnus Ian Hefele in Swakopmund, Namibia.

School for International Training (SIT) and the Peace Corps have a shared history tracing back to the early 1960s, when Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, called on SIT's precursor, The Experiment in International Living, to train the earliest Peace Corps volunteers.

That partnership paved the way for establishment of School for International Training in 1964. Today, SIT offers graduate and doctorate programs through SIT Graduate Institute, with many of our alumni also serving in the Peace Corps.

When Peace Corps volunteers' time abroad was recently cut short by the novel coronavirus, SIT decided to create enhanced scholarships for those returning home early in gratitude for their commitment and service. In this series, we talk to alumni about the similarities between their Peace Corps and SIT experiences -- and what makes the ideal candidate for both.

SIT can help you intellectualize the Peace Corps experience in a deep, meaningful way to help you understand what you learned with your mind and your heart.

Ian Hefele, 37, is a husband and father to two foster children in Brattleboro, Vermont. After growing up in Connecticut, he lived in Namibia, Australia, the UK, Germany, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and, from 2005 to 2009, he taught for the Peace Corps in Mozambique. He earned his master's in Intercultural Service, Leadership and Management at SIT in 2013. He is now an SIT Study Abroad admissions counselor for the Middle East and South Africa.

What made you want to work with the Peace Corps, and what commonalities does it have with SIT?

I wanted to be a part of the Peace Corps since the 8th grade, when my sister's friend came back from Guatemala with stories of living a completely different life, having different experiences in another language, and how she learned to cook on a single, open flame. I also remember watching Nelson Mandela on television as a kid with my parents after he was released from prison [in 1990] and just being fascinated by South Africa. I wanted to go there so much. It really sparked my curiosity. I was always interested in other cultures. My best friend in kindergarten was from Japan. My mom taught English as a second language when I was a kid. She taught a lot of Haitians and Brazilians, so we had a lot of people from a lot of different places growing up as guests in our home.

That SIT respected and acknowledged my Peace Corps experience and wanted to honor it, that meant a lot.

The drive to learn about and understand other cultures in a deep and meaningful way is one of the main things the Peace Corps and SIT have in common. I didn't know about SIT when I was in the Peace Corps, or that SIT used to bring Peace Corps volunteers to Vermont for language training, but someone reached out to me and told me about the SIT scholarships for Returning Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) and for me, it cemented the connection between SIT and Peace Corps. That SIT respected and acknowledged my Peace Corps experience and wanted to honor it, that meant a lot. That was definitely something that sealed the deal in my wanting to study there.

How did your Peace Corps and SIT experiences complement or enhance each other?

When I did my master’s at SIT, I took some Arabic and remember thinking, ‘Why is this so familiar?’ I realized the Peace Corps is using a very similar, if not the same, approach to curricula and teaching students new languages, which is to say it is very experiential. For instance, we would spend the mornings in Mozambique mostly learning the grammar. The lingua franca in Mozambique is Portuguese. But then, in the afternoon, they would say, here's 100 meticais ($4), we have to go to the market to buy food to make lunch together. And we'd have to practice what we'd learned at the market in order to eat. There's also a heavy emphasis on life skills in your new culture – learning how to teach, speak, act, and even cook Mozambiquan-style.

Can you remember a key SIT experience that allowed you to better appreciate your time in the Peace Corps?

I almost wish I’d studied at SIT before the Peace Corps. Every Peace Corps volunteer has incredible highs and incredible lows, and the SIT experience would have helped me get through the lows faster, and understand their importance. Learning cultural competencies really helps you understand those major differences in the moment, that, as a 22-year-old, you may have a lot of trouble grasping. There were so many moments, where I felt like, ‘What on earth is going on?’ I was having this major experience in my life, in my formative years, in the Peace Corps, while most of my friends were getting apartments in New York and well-paying jobs. Meanwhile, I am living in a shack without running water, a two-room concrete house. The knowledge gained during my SIT classes really helped me internalize those experiences better. SIT can help you intellectualize the Peace Corps experience in a deep, meaningful way to help you understand what you learned with your mind and your heart.

What hard and/or soft skills did you get from your time learning with both these organizations that helped in your career and in your life?

I had these experiences in the Peace Corps and I learned a lot, but I never got to the 'So what?,' or the 'Now what?' I didn’t have the intellectual or emotional maturity to process it. SIT got me there. Today, I talk to parents about sending their children abroad through SIT. I have Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, and South Africa in my portfolio. Parents often have no idea what that means to send your children to these places. I go back to my intercultural communication competencies.

Before I made that connection as an admissions counselor, I was heavy on the 'admissions' and less on the 'counselor.' But because of what I learned, it helped me identify my own knowledge base, to counsel parents who are concerned for their children, while also helping to humanize Moroccans, Jordanians, South Africans, and Tunisians for families who want to know more before sending their children abroad. It has finally given me a level of patience and a desire to help educate. I've been working at SIT for several years, and I stopped counting, but by year five I had already helped more than 3,000 students travel abroad.

To your mind, what makes for the ideal SIT-Peace Corps candidate?

SIT and the Peace Corps have a great deal in common in that they both seek students who have drive, but are flexible, open, caring and have a desire to meet people where they are. There is also an intercultural piece to it. Many people think intercultural means international, but that's not necessarily the case. Someone who studies at SIT, or is a good candidate for SIT, is probably comfortable traveling abroad but they can also see the intercultural experience in all aspects of life, even the domestic side.

The above is the first in a series of Q&As the School for International Training is conducting with alumni of both the Peace Corps and SIT.

To learn more about SIT Graduate Institute's scholarships for returning Peace Corps volunteers or SIT master's and doctorate programs, please reach out to Mary Kay Sigda at [email protected] or Maira Tungatarova [email protected].