BRATTLEBORO — When Kenya's Wangari Maathai receives the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize this week, she'll follow in the footsteps of 1997 winner Jody Williams of Vermont. The pioneering women share not only the thrill of receiving the award, but also ties with a Green Mountain-based organization working to improve global relations.
World Learning, headquartered in Brattleboro, has taught people about other cultures since 1932. Williams graduated from its School for International Training in 1976. Maathai joined World Learning's board of trustees in 2001. The private nonprofit organization received more than $20 million from an anonymous donor last year — the largest gift awarded as of that time to an institution of higher education in Vermont.
So why does front-desk receptionist Bonnie Amidon still face questions like these outside the office: "You work where? And what do they do there?"
World Learning's 220-acre campus may sit in the secluded wooded outskirts of a town of 12,000, but it's no stranger to the global stage. The organization started 72 years ago as a student travel provider called the Experiment in International Living and now operates nearly 170 cultural and language programs in 100 countries.
"Clearly, after 9/11 people began to connect the dots to see that what happens in other parts of the world has implications here," World Learning President James Cramer says. "Our mission is to promote international understanding, peace and social justice. What we do is try to bring people together. I think at this juncture of history the work we do is important."
A man named Donald Watt started the Experiment in 1932 with the idea of booking student travelers into inviting homes instead of isolating hotels or hostels. Sargent Shriver was one of the first college students to visit Europe through the Experiment. When Shriver went on to organize the Peace Corps in 1961 for his brother-in-law, President John F. Kennedy, he sought help from the Vermont organization.
The Experiment, in turn, realized even more people could benefit from its expertise. It established the School for International Training in 1964 to offer academic credit for international studies. Many colleges and universities now offer similar programs. But World Learning continues to break ground, sensitizing people to the differences of culture in developing countries.
Many institutions send students to Europe, but World Learning also offers study in 24 countries in Africa and two dozen more in Asia and the Pacific. The anonymous $20 million gift, announced in June of last year, came in part to develop programs in the Middle East and about Islamic cultures.
"The donor felt it was important to get Americans engaged in that region, learning the language and culture," Cramer says. "People who study abroad say it forever changes how they view the world. Through our work we can advance citizen diplomacy."
World Learning's Experiment operation sends about 1,000 high school students to more than 25 countries annually, while its School for International Training offers studies in 45 countries to 1,500 undergraduates and 600 more students in graduate and professional development programs.
The diversity is apparent in the cafeteria, where the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food guide pyramid is pasted on the wall in Amharic, Arabic, Bengali, Cambodian, Chinese, French, German, Haitian Creole, Hebrew, Hindi, Korean, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian and Spanish. Around the corner, student organizers of a multicultural fashion show recently prepared their script.
"Scott is wearing a boubou from West Africa," the first line began, "a robe and pant set worn by Muslim men in the region."
Such multiculturalism isn't limited to the student body. World Learning employs 230 people in Vermont and nearby New Hampshire and another 200 workers at offices in Houston, New Delhi, San Carlos, Calif., Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Washington, D.C.
It has branched out with such programs as World Learning for International Development, which manages overseas development projects that promote education and democracy in non-industrialized and transitional societies; and World Learning for Business, which offers language and cultural training to companies.
Two Nobel Peace Prize winners have helped spread the word.
Williams had finished college in 1972 when she took her first job as an oral surgeon's assistant in Brattleboro. Fainting at the sight of blood, she moved across town to the School for International Training, where she earned a master's degree in Spanish and teaching English as a second language. Several career steps later, she won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize with the group she helped found, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
Maathai will bring more attention to World Learning when she accepts her prize Dec. 10 in Oslo, Norway.
The first African woman to receive the award is known in her homeland for founding the Green Belt Movement, which has helped citizens plant more than 30 million trees to combat deforestation, stop soil erosion, provide shade and replenish the region's lumber and firewood resources.
Maathai joined World Learning's 35-member board of trustees in 2001 and was re-elected to a second term this fall. Although she wasn't able to attend the board's most recent meeting, she has visited the Vermont campus on several occasions and has hosted its students in Kenya.
"Part of why her work resonates with us and our work resonates with her is our goals are the same — to help achieve peace and social justice," Cramer says.
Maathai's prize sparked international debate about whether an environmentalist deserved a peace award. (She believes people are more prone to fight if they don't have enough natural resources.) Then Maathai shocked many by questioning whether scientists had concocted AIDS as a biological weapon.
World Learning, having heard Williams call President Clinton "a weenie" in a remark she said was off the record, has experience with vocal Nobel Peace Prize winners.
"We have received a number of questions, and I refer them to Wangari," Cramer says. "I have not spoken to her since she won the prize, so one of the questions I'm going to ask is, 'What did you say?' But just like our faculty and students who speak their minds on a variety of issues, I wouldn't presume to tell anyone what to say or not to say."
Instead, the organization expects to strengthen its ties with Maathai. Both agreed before the award to collaborate on an environmental studies program in Kenya in 2006.
World Learning also is boosting its local and state connections. Communications director Jerry Goldberg is one of many employees volunteering in the community — in his case, as president of the local library's board of trustees — while the campus now hosts events such as Vermont's annual Governor's Institute on Current Issues and Youth Activism.
World Learning's most immediate challenge right now is Cramer's own imminent departure. He's trading his frequent flier miles for time with his two school-age children. The organization is interviewing prospects with hopes of naming a new leader soon.
The global challenges the new president will face are uncertain. But Cramer says his successor will inherit an organization with a growing sense of purpose.
"There's a lot of soul-searching going on in this country about what should be the appropriate role of the U.S. in the world," he says. "At World Learning, we find ourselves more and more a trusted intermediary. We've been at it for a long time, and more people are turning to organizations with an established track record, especially in the developing world. I think you're going to see our work recognized more. I predict some exciting times ahead for us."
Contact Kevin O'Connor at email@example.com.
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