Peter Shumlin is the former governor of Vermont who oversaw a boom of progressive policies in his state, passing laws to boost renewable energy and guarantee universal Pre-kindergarten. He’s also co-director of Putney Student Travel, which has been sending students abroad over summer vacation since 1951. Today, they've got small group programs in 30 countries and have developed partner-programs with National Geographic and The New York Times. They have different offerings on cultural exchange programs for middle and high school students, including those focused on language, service, and academics.
Last year, China became the only country outside of the U.S. that Putney has expanded recruitment to. Last week, while Governor Shumlin was visiting Shanghai, we got a chance to sit down at Western International School of Shanghai (WISS) to discuss the benefits of his program from college apps to the greater good, Trump politics, and predictions for 2020.
SmSh: They say everyone’s got one, so what’s your China Story?
Gov Shumlin: Putney was actually the first organization, after Nixon opened [it] up, to send students to China to do things that American kids had never done before. So we’ve been in China for a long time. [More recently] I came to Shanghai as Governor for economic development trips, worked together with President Xi on some issues… and I thought to myself, why don’t we spend some time in China letting people know about Putney Student Travel? So the purpose here is to reach the folks who are living in China but would like to have the same opportunities we’ve been offering to American students for almost 70 years.
It’s more difficult, I think, for foreign students, to distinguish themselves in the college admissions process; we were down at Experimental High School two days ago and [met with] a girl that applied to our community service project in India. Her trip leader who loved her, said 'you gotta go to Dartmouth College it’s absolutely the right place for you.' She wrote her a reference and called the admissions office and now she’s at Dartmouth… We’re starting in China because we don’t think programs are being offered exactly the way we do it here — and we think it’s exciting to be spreading the word.
Governor Shumlin in deep talks with Director of WISS Dr. Greg Brunton, pre-interview.
SmSh: You’ve been pretty vocal against President Trump. Have you noticed a difference in the way you’re received in Shanghai since he’s been in office?
Gov Shumlin: Well, we certainly have a different view of the world… It hasn’t affected our program, but listen, this is the first President of the United States in my view that got elected by dividing people. Dividing people based on race, religion, sexual orientation, whatever we can divide people with, they’ve been doing it. And I think when you’re living in a foreign country thinking about going to the United States for university or on a summer travel program, it gives you pause and there’s a perception that you’re not welcome — and what my message is, is simple: the majority of Americans do not believe that we should be dividing people. They’re loving people that care about China and care about the people here; and in the end I think humanity will trump Trump politics.
SmSh: So are you targeting students at International Schools? What’s the connection with WISS?
Gov Shumlin: Our goal is to have international students as well as students in Chinese national schools, to create groups that are more like the communities they’ll find when they get to U.S. Universities. If you talk to the college presidents, they’ll say, 'You know what one of our problems is? You go into our cafeterias and you’ve got the students from China sitting over here, and the students from Korea sitting over there'...Wouldn’t it be great if students came to our programs, from international communities and go in knowing that they have great relationships with American students before they even get there? Programs also help foreign students' English tremendously. So, there are a lot of benefits we want to communicate to folks here, who just don’t know about us.
At WISS, the connection is simply when I was governor I became friends with Tim [Ed’s Note: Tim Guo, WISS Board Member], it has nothing to do with Putney. I told Tim that when I’m done being Governor I’m gonna come spread the word about these summer programs in China, and he said, 'Come see me, I want to help' — and he has been a huge help. He’s also running an extraordinary school here. The thing about WISS is when you walk around the halls of this school, you can see the students really care about each other, there’s a spirit here you don’t find in all the schools around the globe.
Kickin' it with President Xi Jinping, back in the day
SmSh: What are the major benefits of participating in a Putney program?
Gov Shumlin: Here’s what I tell parents in China and in International Schools: one of the challenges I believe with education right now is that it’s become so focused on scores, grades, and measuring performance that we over-ascribe our student’s educational journey — you end up with students who are very good at taking tests and very good at performing, but don't necessarily have the experience to work well in a small group, to be professionals who can collaborate. We’re putting so much pressure on them, we’re stifling their creative potential that they’re going to need to succeed.
What I say to students is: listen, there’s never been a generation that has been given the responsibility, the challenges, and the opportunities of this generation — you have a bigger responsibility to learn about each other, to learn languages, to communicate, to get to know religions, and people, that are different from anything you ever thought you’d get to know.
We have programs that focus directly on climate change, other programs that focus simply on languages, culture, academic programs; you can study at the London School of Economics, at Amherst College. We have a variety of programs but they all have one central theme: getting students to work together creatively to accomplish whatever the mission of their program is. We give students the ability to go out their on their own with support, make discoveries, have fun, learn about culture, learn about language, be challenged in ways that you simply can’t in a strict school environment — and we think that in China that is needed more than ever right now.
SmSh: If students or parents are interested in this, what kind of application stands out and how competitive is the program?
Gov Shumlin: You know, it’s not like getting into Harvard or Yale. What we’re trying to weed out during the admissions process are students who might provide emotional or behavioral challenges that would drag down the group experience for everyone else. [Putney students] tend to be really good wholesome, well-adjusted students who can work well in a group and help to form a really close knit community.
What we’re really looking for are students who are enthusiastic and excited about it, we don’t want it to just be mom and dad’s idea, we need to see some motivation from the student. And students who are well adjusted socially; we don’t care so much about scores and exams, the rest of their life is absorbed by that, particularly here in China… Our programs are like applying to a private school, when you apply to a program, you have to list two teachers that know you well, and write a short essay. Then we accept you if we think you're appropriate for the program.
SmSh: China’s the first country Putney has expanded into outside of the U.S. What has that been like and what’s been Putney's biggest accomplishment?
Gov Shumlin: It was funny, when we came last year when we started this, everyone was like, when you get to China they are all going to want to do your academic programs, and the first four students that applied, applied for community service projects in Tanzania, India, and Peru. The students get it and are looking for something that pushes them out of their comfort zone.
Really, where this all came from, was 68 years ago. My dad was a World War II vet who’d grown up in New Jersey, but had been colored — like many people of his generation — by World War II and fighting Hitler. My mom is Dutch, and grew up in occupied Holland and literally watched her Jewish friends disappear, she’d be playing with them one day and they’d be gone the next. They were both teachers in the U.S. and they got this pretty radical idea to turn summer vacation into an opportunity for students by sending them to do home-stays, community service, learn languages, to really interact with people from foreign countries; all as some small step in helping contribute to a better world through understanding.
The biggest thing we’ve accomplished is taking students who are curious and ready and giving them experiences that they never would have had, that then affect the rest of their lives… What we love about working with middle and high school students is that you can really make a big change in a short period of time, they’re much more open, and that’s why I love doing the work we do.
Me and Gov Shumlin, casually talking future of the U.S. Democratic Party.
SmSh: Speaking of Vermont…Bernie 2020?
Gov Shumlin: My prediction of the Democratic side of the race, is it’s going to be more primary candidates than you’ve ever seen. I mean everyone and their uncle — and aunt I hope — are going to be running for president. It’s very difficult to be a frontrunner in a Democratic primary, if you don’t believe me ask Hillary, Al Gore, I mean we can go through the list. So, it’s exciting. I hope Bernie runs because he adds a lot of important stuff to the conversation. But my guess is that just as Hillary Clinton when she first ran for president was expected to be the nominee and Barack Obama came from nowhere—my guess is the Democrats will nominate someone we don’t expect, we won’t do a rerun of the last race.
Check out Putney Student Travel's official website, where you can learn more about the application process and scholarships.
Photos provided by WISS and Jonathan Perry