Brattleboro, Vt. — AMERICANS, say foreign students, have some bad habits. One is saying, ``Hi, how're ya doin'?'' and then just walking away. A foreign student will stop to answer the question, but the American is already a block away. This is a small example of the cultural misunderstandings that can prevent different nationalities from working well together in government, politics, and in development projects. One organization working to instill cross-cultural awareness is the Experiment for International Living.
For more than 50 years, the nonprofit educational institution, through a multitude of degree programs and other projects, has worked to teach people of all ages from all over the world to be global citizens. Most of them go on to do development work in international human resource organizations or to teach languages overseas. Nearly a thousand leaders of developing countries have received advanced training in the US with the help of the Experiment.
``Development is the most ambitious thing the species has taken on; it's going to have an enormous impact,'' says Riall Nolan, an instructor in the Institute for International Training, the academic wing of the Experiment. ``It will redistribute the world's resources and will change everybody's lives. Since development projects are seen as the cutting edge, it's important to train people properly.''
How is one taught to to be sensitive to the values of another culture? Part of the process is being thrown together in the dorms. That can be a shock, says one staff member: Some wealthy students have quite an adjustment when they discover that their living accommodations are quite modest.
Some of it is practical dos-and-don'ts, like not serving food to a Muslim with your left hand, or not pointing at an Asian. The school also teaches language skills, immersion style. Also offered are administrative skills: How to write a proposal, how to budget, how to get people to work together.
``The main thing I learned is not dominating in group dynamics,'' says Judith Thompson, who earned her master's degree here in 1980 and is now national coordinator for Children of War, which brings teen-agers from war-torn countries to talk to US high schools. ``Because the population of American students at the Experiment is still high [about 50 percent], there's a tendency to dominate, in discussion and in the way ideas are shaped. Those from the third world tend not to take initiative and we must give space for others' ideas to come forth....''
That process was happening in a counseling class at the Experiment. The group was discussing what to do if a female law student, worried about an alcoholic parent, was going on eating binges and having trouble studying. The solutions from the American students: therapy, Alcoholics Anonymous. Then the teacher, Linda Drake Gobbo, threw in a monkey-wrench. ``What if the student were foreign?'' Silence. Mikako Matsushima hesitantly spoke up. Don't automatically recommend that a foreign student see a counselor, she said. ``I would feel shock if someone advised me to do that.''
While the Experiment teaches Americans to not always jump in and take over, it also encourages students from more passive cultures to speak up. Miss Matsushima, of Tokyo, said later: ``What I was afraid of before coming here was that I would always have to say something. I've never spoken in front of people before. But I gained self-confidence through the program.''
Proper skills, according to alumni and current teachers, are: listening, empathy, knowing one's motive and how one makes decisions. ``We teach a lot more self-awareness, concern for others' values, to be skeptical of big plans by big organizations without thought for others' feelings,'' says Mr. Nolan. (Such skills might have averted the failure of a Western-instigated plan to grow green beans in Zaire; they don't eat green beans in Zaire.)
The skills one learns can be valuable even in one's own country. Totraman Gurung is a health education worker from Nepal. ``The program has taught me what to be careful of,'' he says during a break in classes. ``I'm not going to impose my ideas, like `Hey, this is one thing you should do.' Just be a facilitator and see what I can do to help.''
The Experiment was started in 1932 when Donald Watt pioneered a summer abroad program from nearby Putney, Vt. He took 23 American boys to study in a camp with French and German students. Later he had them stay in family homes, ``the world's greatest classroom.'' The summer abroad experiment is now a fixture for many university students.
Sargent Shriver attended the Experiment and went on to help start the Peace Corps and urged the Experiment to provide training for early Peace Corps workers. In 50 years, 300,000 people of all ages from 100 countries have participated in Experiment programs.
Today, the Experiment for International Living is a widely diversified worldwide organization with 40 autonomous offices. Undergraduate training and graduate degree programs come under the academic wing of the Experiment, called the Institute for International Training, founded in 1964. Another wing gives grants for refugee and community development training projects in third world countries. There are 17,000 people in 50 training, education, or exchange programs, including English and foreign language teaching programs in California, Florida, and Vermont.
The program has its detractors. One source in the international field says that the business skills are weak. Gabriela Schonbach, '80, says that much of what she learned in her master's program was ``touchy-feely'' stuff. But she says it has become valuable in her work as the head of the Media Group, a company that creates documentaries for institutions doing development work. ``You get the ability to function in any situation where there is a group of people who don't have the same group of perceptions.''