By ANIESA HOLMESSeptember 25, 2013
FORT BENNING, Ga., (Sept. 25, 2013) -- When international military students from the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation arrive at Fort Benning each year, military and civilian volunteers offer hours of time and energy to make them feel more at home.
WHINSEC's Padrinos and Amigos of International Students, or PAIS program, allows sponsors to invite students from the Command and General Staff Office Course to show them the American way of life. Sponsors invite students and Family members into their homes or plan recreational activities in Columbus, Phenix City and surrounding areas. Sponsors range in experience and include individuals, Families or members of civic organizations across the community.
Cecilia Alexander, field studies program coordinator for WHINSEC, said the program has an average of 20 active sponsors. Many newcomers join through a recommendation from friends who participate. Students also have military class sponsors who assist in understanding familiar terms and responsibilities before meeting with PAIS sponsors.
"The class sponsors help with administrative responsibilities such as buying a car or renting a house," Alexander said. "By the time our sponsors get them, they are already settled and they are supposed to provide the social and cultural part."
Sponsors keep in contact with students at least once a month to ensure they feel comfortable in their new surroundings.
Alexander asks students to fill out a questionnaire before matching them with a sponsor. The program hosts a reception that allows students and sponsors to meet in person. From baseball games and museum visits to teaching wives how to use coupons and prepare American dishes, Alexander said the activities help to create valuable bonds and educational experiences for everyone.
Columbus resident Carmen Luciano has served as a sponsor for more than 10 years after watching several of her friends participate. Luciano said her relationship with past students has varied over the years depending on time and common interests.
"It's a great experience to have a relationship with someone who is not from the same country," she said. "Sometimes you can develop a good friendship with them, and others like to do more things on their own. You just make sure they have your phone number and know that you are there for them."
Luciano's newest student is Lt. Col. Victor Pino of the National Army of Colombia. Pino brought his wife and two daughters from Colombia with him for the year as he studies in the 46-week course. Pino said although this is not his first visit to the U.S., the experience has presented a few challenges for his children. Students are often busy in classes, studying or traveling to other cities while their Families adjust to a new life.
"It's been difficult for my daughters, especially in school," he said. "My daughter in middle school has adjusted well, but my daughter in kindergarten has struggled because her classmates all speak English."
Luciano and Phenix City resident Emerita Wiley said being Spanish-speaking sponsors can be an advantage for Family members who face difficulties learning the language and customs in the U.S. However, fluency in Spanish is not a requirement for sponsors. Wiley, who has sponsored for several years, said she is looking forward to bonding with CGSOC student Lt. Col. Milton Alvarado of Police Forces Costa Rica. Alvarado, who is visiting the country for the first time, said sponsors are beneficial in explaining various cultural differences.
"Right now it has been a slow work in progress," Alvarado said. "There are some cultural differences such as the food. We also greet with a hug and a kiss in Latin America, but here the people are not as close."
Wiley said the greatest benefit is making international friendships that last for years and sponsors should appreciate the value of maintaining relationships within the PAIS program.
"It's a good way to interact with them and their Families and develop friendships," Wiley said. "I think that camaraderie helps to improve relationships between padrinos."
For more information about becoming a sponsor in the Padrinos and Amigos of International Students program, call Alexander at 706-545-1285 between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. weekdays or email email@example.com.