Interview with Putney’s Co-Directors
Since our founding in 1951, Putney has been a family-owned organization, now proudly in our third generation of leadership. Meet the dynamic third generation, Olivia and Becca Shumlin, daughters of Peter and nieces of Jeff, who remain deeply involved in the work we do here. Hailing from our namesake town of Putney, Vermont, their roots intertwine deeply with the very fabric of the organization. What began as youthful participation in Putney’s transformative programs blossomed into a lifelong dedication to shaping the experiences of students worldwide. The heart of Putney Student Travel resides in “The Barn,” an old converted cow barn where our diverse and vibrant team, including former educators, seasoned travelers, and experts in various fields, collaborate to craft unique, immersive programs for Putney as well as our collaborations. Grounded in a 73-year legacy, they continue to uphold the founding principles of their grandparents, uncle, and father, pushing boundaries, fostering global understanding, and nurturing future leaders. With each step echoing the ethos of their grandparents who kickstarted this extraordinary organization, Olivia and Becca infuse their roles with a deep sense of purpose and a commitment to empowering the next generation. Read on to find out more about our co-directors at Putney!
Where did you grow up?
We grew up here in Putney, Vermont, right up the road from the Putney Student Travel Barn. As high school students, we participated in Putney programs (Service and Pre-College), and in our later years as program leaders. After Liv graduated from Brown University and Becca graduated from Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School, we both spent time living and working in New York City, before returning home to join the Putney team full time.
What is your favorite thing about living in Putney or working at the Barn?
There are about 35 incredible people at the heart of our organization. We collaborate together under Putney’s roof, which we refer to as “The Barn”—which is in fact an old converted cow barn down a dirt road in Southern Vermont. Our team is made up of former teachers, Peace Corps volunteers, parents, a licensed ship captain, a former governor, outdoor adventurers, MFAs in writing, anthropologists, and more. They each bring their diversity of experience, languages spoken, meaningful connections, and expertise to our programs. It makes it inspiring to come to work where we collaborate together under the Barn roof. There are great cross country skiing trails behind the Barn in the winter and a beautiful pond for swimming in the summer. Come visit if you are ever up this way! We love when families stop by to say hello.
What do you most admire about your family founding and leading Putney Student Travel?
Forging new pathways and the close connections with alumni students, families, leaders, and local contacts all over the world.
Do you have a first memory of Putney Student Travel?
The many Putney friends—leaders, community contacts, etc.—we have had the privilege of hosting at our home and vice versa. Many of our core childhood and early adolescent memories are centered around having Putney contacts stay at our house, and visiting them at theirs around the world.
In what ways do you think Putney is different and/or the same since your grandparents founded the organization?
The main thing we’ve noticed is how the importance of our core mission—to change students’ lives—has grown and expanded over the course of our seven decades. The world was very different when our grandparents led the first group of students by ship to western Europe. In the aftershock of World War II, their vision was to guide students out of their comfort zones and teach them to embrace the new and the different. They sought to develop thoughtful and well-rounded young leaders in a world that needed connection and understanding.
Today, young people face significant challenges. They look around themselves and see a warming planet, social isolation, division. It’s clear to us that that original vision, that 73-year mission–to develop leaders–remains as important as ever. If you think about the societal pressure young people experienced in 1951 when this journey began and put it all into the historical, cultural, and societal context, you may find that many of the challenges were not that different.
What feels different today, though, is our increased awareness of these challenges and our ability to address them head on. For seven decades, Putney programs have fostered friendships, instilled maturity, self-confidence, personal discovery, and global understanding. These experiences shape lives. Summers with Putney empower students to take charge of their future by discovering their own (exponential) potential and inspiring them to lead in today’s world. We call it the Putney Magic.
Could you share a personal or family tradition within Putney that holds special significance to you?
There is a long-time Putney Pre-College Director turned very close family friend, Joe Monninger, who is famously credited amongst the Putney family for the aphorism, “Lateness is a choice.” Joe is a brilliant and accomplished author and professor, and it would feel wrong to not add that the real Monninger version is a bit longer, something along the lines of, “When you are late, all you are doing is telling me you think your time is more valuable than mine.” We like to reiterate the old Monninger-ism to one another whenever one of us is late for a meeting. It also speaks to Putney’s ethos around “positive group dynamics,” which we talk about a lot on our programs. The idea of holding oneself to a high standard of accountability purely for the well-being of the collective group experience.
In your opinion, what sets Putney apart from other student travel organizations, and how do you maintain that uniqueness?
Putney is not a “get on and off a tour bus” kind of approach. For over seven decades we take great pride in the fact that our students and leaders are getting off the beaten track and really going places. At Putney, we value curiosity and strive to embrace the unknown and unfamiliar. We create innovative programming in response to world issues and our programs benefit from a global network of friends and partner organizations built over 73 years.
What values or principles do you believe have been integral to the success and longevity of Putney as a family-led organization?
1. Our 73-year track record of prioritizing health and safety above all else.
2. The larger “Putney family.” The individuals who make up this organization extends far beyond those with the last name Shumlin. This includes our program directors and dedicated leaders who take time away from their busy professions to lead our programs summer after summer. They do so with a genuine desire to participate in these experiences and share their knowledge with our students. Our leaders come from diverse backgrounds and identities and are committed to working alongside students to help them become more informed global citizens.
Many are graduates of the nation’s top colleges and join us from prestigious positions with organizations like the Peace Corps, Teach for America, the Fulbright program, and various academic institutions. They have incredible experience in international living, travel, foreign languages, and youth engagement, and teach students to be safe and responsible travelers while inspiring them to make their own discoveries. Our leaders are like family to us and in many ways become like family to our students.
Our Oxford Academia faculty also come from a wide range of backgrounds, from Rhodes Scholars to industry professionals, and scholars at esteemed universities around the world. They bring the most exciting and dynamic elements of their educational pursuits to our programs, offering ample opportunities for high-level academic and immersive learning. You can learn more about our leaders by checking out their bios on the Putney Student Travel website and our faculty on the Oxford Academia website. We look forward to hosting our leaders here in Putney every June for our in-person leader training and orientation.
3. Our founders and grandparents, George and Kitty Shumlin, would be disappointed with the trend of summer educational programs increasingly being taken over by venture capital folks. For them, as for us, our work is not about profit and loss statements; it’s about changing students’ lives in a world that desperately needs leadership. We are humbled to be the third generation of Shumlins (and first generation of all women) to help make the Putney Magic happen for our 73rd summer.
What is something about you that might surprise people who only know you through your professional role at Putney?
How different the two of us are from one another, yet how close we are.
If you could offer one piece of advice to aspiring young travelers, what would it be based on your own experiences?
Be ready to eat unfamiliar foods and adapt to customs, values, and traditions that may seem unfamiliar. Encourage yourself to reflect on your beliefs and remain open to listening to other points of view or perspectives that may differ from your own. Be thoughtful, open-minded, and adventurous in mind and spirit.
What do you do to recharge outside of work?
We spend a lot of time together. Our lives revolve around family and Putney all year round. We are also raising a spirited two-year-old named Max. (Technically, Liv and her partner Erik are raising Max, but with all of our family members within a five-mile radius, we all take credit.) There is a brief period of “quiet time” in late August, once all of our students and leaders have safely returned home, and we have the opportunity to venture into the field ourselves.
Any hidden talents?
Becca is a super-recognizer, essentially someone who “never forgets a face” to an extreme degree (you can take the test online). Liv can safely and confidently drive any wheeled vehicle on virtually any terrain. Both of us are exceptional at catching frogs, a skill we acquired at a young age at the Putney Student Travel pond.
Where is your happy place?
In the garden. Our mom is an incredible gardener and landscaper and we both inherited her passion for plants. The two of us get a surprising amount of creative brainstorming and work-related collaboration done on weekends in the garden together.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Give us a call at Putney! Choosing the right summer program can feel overwhelming. We love having conversations with students and families.
Find more information about Putney and all of our 2024 programming here.