Decades of Dedication to Study Abroad

When John Sommer became dean of study abroad at SIT in 1981, his task was to marry the immersive and experiential quality of The Experiment in International Living programs with high academic standards so American universities would recognize the value of study abroad semesters for their students.

“It took a while for colleges to take it seriously,” he says. “There really weren’t any programs of this kind.”

Not only did SIT raise the academic bar for study abroad during Sommer’s nearly 20-year tenure, it also expanded the number of countries and continents where students could travel.

“At the time, most study abroad programs were in France, England and Spain,” he recalls. “It was our mission to expand the world for students by offering programs in Africa and Asia,” he says, pointing to the critical need for programs outside of Western Europe.

From India, Nepal, and Kenya, SIT expanded broadly to Africa – the first to Cameroon, Madagascar and even South Africa during apartheid. “Our students met Nelson Mandela,” Sommer says. “And we were the first to go into Vietnam, and particularly Saigon, even before the U.S. opened diplomatic relations,” he adds.

Now Sommer is supporting the program with a generous gift — a donation that will help students pay for their study abroad experiences in South and Southeast Asia. “Study abroad is an eye-opening experience that I believe everyone should have,” Sommer explains. Supporting students in these regions of Asia was prompted by his experience living there for nine years when he worked for International Voluntary Services, the Ford Foundation, the Peace Corps and USAID. He also spent his early career
working in Vietnam before the war. Reflecting on his time as dean, Sommer says, “It’s the most rewarding job I ever had. I never met a student who didn’t say it was one of the most meaningful experiences of his or her lifetime.”

And it’s this life-changing impact on each and every student that made him want to continue contributing to SIT’s study abroad programs, long after serving as dean.