Ready for Liftoff: The “launch phase” of SIT’s multi-country IHP programs

a smiling young male student sits at a table with three female students, listening to a presentation
Two young women smiling
Robi Roberts (at left) and Elizabeth Miller in Zuccotti Park in New York City

A small group of students sat beneath the trees in Zuccotti Park, the spot where Occupy Wall Street activists set up camp in 2011 to decry economic inequality. There are food carts all around, sidewalks swarming, and the park is an island of shady tranquility amid the bustle. The 31 students of International Honors Program Cities in the 21st Century were on lunch break, likewise tranquil for the moment. Soon, they would head out into the city in small groups to visit organizations that address the housing challenges of New York City, where rents have soared and affordable housing is limited.

As part of SIT’s International Honors Program (IHP) these students would experience a launch that differs from SIT’s other study abroad programs, which are based in one country for a semester or summer with brief excursions to other locations. IHP begins in the United States, then takes students to three more continents to examine a specific issue in different places and cultures.

Over the next four months, for example, the Cities in the 21st Century group will move on from New York to Buenos Aires; Barcelona, and Cape Town, South Africa. The IHP climate change program takes students to Bolivia, Morocco, and Vietnam; while the human rights program visits Chile, Jordan, and Nepal. Other programs examine health and social innovation in many of the same locations around the world.

IHP programs have another unique feature: a group of traveling faculty and IHP fellows who accompany  each group of students throughout their semester-long experience. The traveling fellows’  sole job is to see to the well-being of students as they experience multiple cultures together over 16 weeks.

IHP Associate Dean Katy de la Garza says the travelling fellow helps “create group values. They facilitate sessions to help students examine questions like ‘What’s important to me in traveling together with this group? Where do I fit in?’”

The fellows serve as guides and mentors, she said, helping students work together and navigate the challenges of differing opinions and identities as they experience other cultures.

That work begins in earnest at program launches, which this semester take place in Atlanta, the San Francisco Bay Area, New York City, and Washington, DC.

There, with the fellows’ help, students on each program  create “norms” which evolve and change over the course of the semester. “They might say, ‘We want to be called in, not called out.’ Or ‘If I don’t know how to talk about certain identities, teach me how,’” de la Graza explained. Other times it’s simple stuff: ways to get along through long weeks of travel, dictums like, “Don’t yuck my yum.”

De la Garza said the new skills and knowledge that begin in an IHP launch phase are part of students understanding the necessities of keeping to strict schedules and focusing on rigorous academics. At the same time, she said, “Creating group values and norms sets the stage for understanding that one person’s actions affect the whole group; that one person’s views are different from others. Debates often come about because an image or an experience means one thing for someone, another for someone else.”

a smiling young male student sits at a table with three female students, listening to a presentation
IHP students listen to a presentation at the NYC Department of City Planning.

“They quickly feel the pace of the travel and the academics during the launch. They’re really happy because they’re connected to their technology, but there’s often no tech in the classroom. We tell them, ‘Begin your detox now!’ They’re often going to be in places where there’s no access to tech,” said de la Garza.

IHP Cities Academic Director Kelly Rosenthal agreed that the launch phase is also critical from an academic perspective. “It is where students start to see through a new set of lenses. The launch is where the familiar becomes strange, and students begin to hone their new skills of ‘reading the city’ as a physical manifestation of historical, political, social and economic forces. Even students who are born-and-bred New Yorkers see their city in a completely different way after the launch.”

On the Cities program, students’ time in New York included two main “learning cycles,” explains Launch Coordinator Sonny Singh: “a historical walking tour of lower Manhattan and trip to Ellis Island, and one on housing and displacement, which includes a visit to the Department of City Planning as well as several grassroots housing organizing and advocacy groups. They also have a conversation about strategies for creating change with a panel of activists working on public housing, civil rights, and workers’ cooperatives.”

The students at Zuccotti said their initial days with the program were immersive and, in the best way, challenging. Eli Bliss, who attends Skidmore College, said the New York launch had been “intense. Things happen fast. But it’s also really exciting.”

Just about a week into the program, the students seemed ease, joking with each other and with faculty member Umud Dalgic, who shifted seamlessly from small talk to incisive conversation about the housing crisis.

Five students walking on the sidewalk in NYC
IHP: Cities in the 21st Century students embark on their visit to the Coalition for the Homeless in New York.

They’re coalescing as a group, Umud said, but even a week or so into the program, they were also gaining new abilities. In “reading” the city, he said, they were “learning how to go about uncovering some of the not very obvious aspects of urban life.”

“I frame it as, no matter what we’re doing, it’s a learning experience,” said student Elizabeth Miller of Davidson College in North Carolina. “Right now, I’m looking at the built environment, seeing who’s here and who’s not, what people are doing, even though we’re not in a lecture.”

As the students walked to their small-group session at Coalition for the Homeless, they talked to Umud about what they would ask at the Coalition.  During the presentation, their questions were pointed, informed by a visit earlier in the day to the Department of City Planning, where they had seen a blueprint for an entire neighborhood redesign in the Bronx. Talking with Jacquelyn Simone, a policy analyst for the Coalition, they asked how the residents in and near such projects felt about them and whether they would be effective.

It was clear from their questions that with the new skills, relationships, and confidence gained during the program launch, the students already were maneuvering into independent inquiries and insights.

Robi Roberts, also from Davidson College, said a recent visit to Staten Island revealed a very different place from the rest of the city they’d seen. Much of their learning there was their own doing. “We were able to go to Staten Island to learn for ourselves – we did the work, and we decided what was important.”

They observed how houses were situated, how transportation worked, and the pace and feel of a part of New York that drew fewer tourists. They were “reading” the city. It was a first foray into working and learning together, just what the launch was designed to foster.

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About the Author: James Heflin