Is the SIIC Fellows Program Right for Me?

Every year around this time, I am contacted by several people interested in applying to the Fellows Program at the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC) who want to ask me about my experience in the program.
 
My intention with this blog post is to share some insider information about the SIIC Fellows Program experience. The opinions expressed here are primarily my own, but I also gathered input from several other past Fellows and from Janet Bennett, Executive Director of the Intercultural Communication Institute (ICI), the organization that sponsors SIIC.
 
I don’t present this as an “unbiased” review, as any interculturalist knows we all have biases. So here are mine, up front and center: 
 
I was first a Fellow (although we were called “Interns” back then) in 2008. I attended SIIC as a “Returning Fellow” (or “Rintern” in the SIIC vernacular) in 2010 and 2013. In 2015, I attended as a regular participant (i.e. not a Rintern), and in 2016 I joined the faculty.
 
My experiences with SIIC – and specifically the Fellows Program – have greatly impacted my personal and professional development. So much so, in fact, that after my first Fellows experience, I set my sights on becoming a faculty member before turning 40 (mission accomplished – yay!) because I so admired the work of the faculty there and wanted to be able to help others learn and grow in the way they have done for me.
 
That being said, I recognize that the SIIC Fellows Program is not for everyone.  So I try here to provide a realistic overview of what the program entails, the potential benefits, and who may and may not enjoy the experience. It’s a longer post than usual, but will hopefully be helpful to those considering the program (or even those just curious to learn more about SIIC). 
 
First of all, what in the world is SIIC?
 
SIIC (pronounced like “sick”) is a multi-week professional development opportunity sponsored by the Intercultural Communication Institute (ICI) and hosted at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, every July. Unlike a typical conference, where participants move from one 60-90 minute session to the next, SIIC is focused on deep learning in small group workshops.
 
Workshops are either three or five days in duration, with a few one-day workshops offered over the weekends in between the longer sessions. Participants can sign up for only one workshop per session, but can attend multiple sessions back-to-back.
 
Although it’s called the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication, SIIC is not just for people in the intercultural communication field. Workshops cover a wide variety of topics related to learning across cultures – including social justice, race and reconciliation, diversity and inclusion, leadership, intercultural coaching, mindfulness, team building, emotional intelligence, training design and facilitation, identity development, and a host of other topics.
 
SIIC regularly attracts attendees from education, human resources, government, the corporate world, NGOs, counseling professions, and more.  Anyone who works with people will probably find a workshop at SIIC that can help them do so more effectively.
 
SIIC is sometimes (affectionately) likened to summer camp for adults. Compared to most professional events, it is quite informal; shorts are common, even among faculty (some co-facilitators are known for wearing matching T-shirts).
 
The majority of participants stay in the dorms on campus. While the thought of eating cafeteria food and sharing a communal bathroom might not excite everyone (or anyone?), I do strongly encourage people that want to make the most of the experience to stay on campus (Fellows must). If you don’t, you may miss out on the full community experience of SIIC. Several nights each week, there are optional (free) evening sessions, followed by a wine-and-cheese social. And the food – proudly locally grown in the Portland area – is the best you’ll probably ever eat on a college campus.
 
All of this is to say that SIIC is not your average professional development experience. It may push you outside of your comfort zone in unexpected ways. And you’ll likely be better because of it.
 
For more information about SIIC, visit https://intercultural.org/program/siic/.
 
Okay, so what’s the Fellows Program?
 
The ICI staff is relatively small, and SIIC is a big undertaking. Therefore, every year ICI selects as many as 30 Fellows to help make SIIC a success. In return, Fellows receive a significant tuition discount and an amazing learning experience.
 
Fellows arrive on campus approximately one week before SIIC officially begins. They first participate in a multi-day training that focuses on working together effectively as a multicultural team. They learn a methodology known as Personal Leadership, from Fellows coordinator Gordon Watanabe. Watanabe, along with colleagues Barbara Schaetti and Sheila Ramsey (both faculty at SIIC as well), developed the Personal Leadership methodology specifically for and because of the SIIC Fellows Program (for more about Personal Leadership, visit http://www.plseminars.com/). Through the Personal Leadership training, Fellows learn how to put into practice their intercultural knowledge.
 
After going through the training, Fellows then help the ICI staff and SIIC faculty with a multitude of tasks to ensure everything runs smoothly. Fellows are each assigned to assist faculty in a specific workshop. That means Fellows have an opportunity to attend one workshop each session and engage on a deeper level with the faculty leading that workshop. Fellows also enjoy an off-campus dinner with the faculty at the beginning and end of the program.
 
Fellows are expected to stay through the first two sessions of SIIC (and thus assist in two three- or five-day workshops).
 
What exactly do Fellows do?
 
Fellows engage in a wide variety of tasks prior to and during SIIC. Before SIIC even begins, Fellows help with the following tasks:
 

  • Moving the ICI office to the Reed College campus. Everything from staplers to computers must be loaded up in a moving van, hauled to Reed College, and set up there. This “moving day” is a long, physically demanding day that requires a lot of teamwork (everyone is expected to contribute, although there are various jobs to accommodate differing physical abilities).

 

  • Beautifying the dorms. Most SIIC participants stay in the Reed College dorms. In an effort to make them as welcoming as possible, Fellows hang posters and put fresh flowers in all of the dorm rooms. And since SIIC is three weeks long, the flowers must be refreshed mid-way through. These tasks may sound simple, but they require a great deal of coordination and teamwork!

 
Once SIIC begins, Fellows not only assist faculty during the workshops, but also fulfill a variety of jobs during their free time. These tasks are assigned during the first week and Fellows have some choice in the matter, although the expectation is that Fellows will do whatever is needed of them to help SIIC run smoothly. The following are some examples of responsibilities Fellows might have:

  • Working at the SIIC bookstore.
  • Preparing and serving refreshments during the evening socials.
  • Helping with check-in and escorting participants to their rooms.
  • Assisting ICI staff in their roles.
  • Serving as SIIC photographer.

 
How do Fellows assist the faculty?
 
This can vary widely depending on the faculty members and how many Fellows are assigned to a given workshop. Fellows and faculty meet prior to the start of each workshop and discuss what faculty need and expect from their Fellows.
 
For the most part, Fellows attend the workshop and participate as everyone else does. But they are also there to support the faculty in whatever ways needed – which could mean bringing materials to the room, getting extra photocopies when needed, going for technical support, taking and sharing out good notes, etc. Some faculty debrief with their Fellows at the end of each day, reviewing the feedback forms as a group and discussing how the day went.
 
Each week, there is a designated day when faculty eat lunch with the Fellows assisting in their workshop, which provides a great opportunity to get to know one another better. Most faculty are very giving and see this as an opportunity to help their Fellows learn and grow in their career.
 
What are the benefits of participating in the Fellows Program?
 
Take a look at the list of faculty on the SIIC website. With 17+ years of experience in the field and a small handful of publications, I’m a total rookie among these names (but please don’t let that keep you from signing up for one of my workshops!). If you’ve explored literature in intercultural communication, diversity and inclusion, social justice, or similar areas, you’ve certainly come across many of these names – Janet Bennett, Michael Paige (my fabulous PhD advisor), Donna Stringer, John (Jack) Condon, Nagesh Rao, Stella Ting-Toomey, Kathryn Sorrells, George Renwick, “Thiagi” Thiagarajan…and the list goes on. SIIC offers an opportunity to not only learn from them, but chat with them over lunch as well. The Fellows Program allows even further inside access to the faculty. Janet Bennett explains, “There are few other ways to access these faculty members in such an ongoing way. The faculty genuinely care about the Fellows, and often stay in touch with them for years.”
 
Most former Fellows I’ve talked with agree that the biggest benefit of participating in the program is the relationships they developed, both with faculty and with other Fellows. Nadine Binder from Germany, a first-time Fellow in 2015, says the most impactful part of the experience for her was “meeting new, inspiring and amazing people, becoming part of a great community/family, deepening and applying [her] knowledge, working closely with faculty, and being part of a unique experience.” Shannon Mason, who was part of my 2008 Fellows cohort and has returned almost every year since, says what surprised her most about the experience was “how accessible and approachable the faculty were.”
 
Personally, I served as a Fellow (or Rintern) for numerous faculty members. They have all been kind and giving, in addition to being incredibly knowledgeable. I have stayed in close touch with some, and less so with others. Mick Vande Berg was one of the first faculty members I assisted, back in 2008. We have stayed in touch ever since, usually connecting at least once a month. I can honestly say I wouldn’t be where I am in my career or understanding of intercultural learning if not for his mentorship. He allowed me to research a program he started for my PhD dissertation; I was eventually hired by CIEE (at Mick’s urging) to take over that program when he retired; now we often co-facilitate and are currently co-authoring a book together.
 
In addition, I’m still in regular contact with at least half of my Fellows cohort, plus many other Fellows I’ve met over the years. We continue to learn from one another, help each other along in our careers, collaborate on projects, share resources, and enjoy spending time together whenever our paths cross.
 
Many Fellows cite the Personal Leadership training and the opportunity to put into practice that learning as a major benefit of the program. Nadine Binder says, “Learning about Personal Leadership during the Fellows week had a massive impact on my private and professional life and continues to do so.”
 
Another, lesser known, benefit of the Fellows Program is that if you do a good job, you are invited back as a “Rintern” in future years. Rinterns are not required to participate in the Fellows training again or to stay as long as the Fellows. They help out behind the scenes as well – sometimes taking more of a leadership role, such as by managing the book store – as well as assisting the faculty. Rinterns are especially needed during the third session of SIIC, after many of the Fellows have left. Janet Bennett explains, “Probably the best benefit is the right to return as Rinterns as often as they want to take more classes. For an intercultural professional, this is an enormous benefit—being able to take as many classes as you want from this amazing network of faculty.”
 
Who is the Fellows Program best suited for and vice versa?
 
The Fellows Program welcomes and encourages people to apply from diverse backgrounds in every respect. Janet Bennett explains, “We are looking for graduate students to college presidents (we have had both as Fellows).” She looks for diversity in age, ethnicity, gender, and all other forms of cultural difference.
 
In addition, ICI is seeking applicants who have travelled substantially or, preferably, lived in another culture. Speaking multiple languages is a plus as well. Bennett explains, “We look for a willingness to do anything, flexibility, sense of humor, poise, patience, and cultural humility.”
 
According to Bennett, the Fellows Program is not typically appropriate for traditional age undergraduate students; they are usually referred to the New Interculturalists Program (for information on that program, visit https://intercultural.org/program/siic/#special).
 
Former Fellows agree the program can be a great experience for people from a wide variety of backgrounds and experience levels, as long as they are open to engaging the process. A lot of the tasks Fellows must do are not glamorous. You must be dedicated to serving something larger than yourself and interested in taking a learning orientation toward the process of working on a multicultural team.
 
Chris Cartwright, who first participated in the Fellows Program in 2004 and is now the Director of Intercultural Assessment at ICI, says the program is ideal for “someone who is ready to stretch themselves and learn on a meta-level what it is to form an intercultural team, while simultaneously facilitating this same experience for those around them.”
 
Who is not a good fit for the Fellows Program or vice versa?
 
The Fellows Program requires a significant investment of time and energy. It may not be for you if:
 

  • You cannot be there for the entire program. This doesn’t just mean being physically present, but also being fully invested in the program. If you cannot dedicate your full time and attention to the experience while you’re there, perhaps this is not the year for you.

 

  • You don’t like “getting your hands dirty” or feel the tasks outlined above are a waste of your time. If you can’t take a learning-orientation toward the whole experience – including hanging up posters or making photocopies – this program is probably not for you.

 

  • You fatigue easily. While efforts are made to accommodate differing needs, all Fellows are required to work hard. (The funny thing is, the experience is so enriching that even after the long days, many Fellows stay up late into the night just talking and spending time together.) If you like what SIIC has to offer, but prefer to just enjoy your free time at the end of the day, linger over meals, and get 8+ hours of sleep at night, you may want to attend as a regular participant rather than apply for the Fellows Program.

 

  • Shared learning is not for you. Solitary learners or people who prefer academic learning over practical application may not get as much out of the program as those who enjoy learning from and through engagement with others.

 
How competitive is the application process? Any tips?
 
Acceptance rates obviously depend on the number of applicants, which fluctuates from year to year. Yet Janet Bennett, who oversees the selection process, explains, “Chances are, if you are recommended highly by someone in the SIIC network, and write a thoughtful application with very solid experience, you will get selected. If that person drops us a short note, even better.”
 
Chris Cartwright suggests aspiring Fellows should discuss in their application other shared or cohort learning experiences they’ve had. “We're looking to build a strong team – individual achievement is not an indicator of success in this context,” he explains.
 
In Conclusion…
 
To summarize, SIIC is a great opportunity for personal and professional development in the intercultural field. The Fellows Program offers a means to take that learning even further by intentionally putting it into practice on a multicultural team and by developing meaningful relationships with an amazing group of people.
 
The Fellows Program is a lot of work though and requires a significant investment of time and energy. (I understand this deeply – I had to leave my 18-month-old daughter for longer than I ever had before to participate initially…when I first arrived, I flopped down on my dorm bed and sobbed with guilt). Nonetheless, I found the experience to be incredibly worth the sacrifice. I can’t promise that to everyone, of course. But if you’ve read this far and the opportunity still excites you, I say go for it! And be open to what the experience may bring.
 
For more information about the SIIC Fellows Program, visit https://intercultural.org/program/siic/#special.  The deadline to apply is usually around the end of May (late April for early acceptance).
 
If you have attended SIIC or the Fellows Program, please share your own experiences in the comments section!

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