FORT KNOX, Ky. (May 5, 2014) -- How would you handle a catalog of firsts that included a first trip overseas, first time lost in a city where no one speaks English and first taste of a cultural delicacy? How about the first time on a humanitarian mission that included providing medical services to locals -- all before you are 21-years old?

U.S. Army ROTC cadets are benefiting from this list of firsts by using them as educational and cultural development opportunities while, along the way, learning something about themselves.

They are participating in the ROTC Cultural Understanding and Language Proficiency program, known as CULP, designed to immerse ROTC cadets in various languages, cultures and socio-economic situations so they can learn, through personal experience, that theirs is not the only culture in the world.

Cadet Travis Alexander, a senior at Georgia Southern University, went on a CULP mission to Spain, in 2012. The overall mission was to teach conversational English to Spanish soldiers so when they participate in NATO missions they have an additional language with which to communicate more effectively. The cadets also had the opportunity to conduct several training missions to include airborne and air assault operations.

Alexander said he learned helpful lessons in developing his leadership style that he wouldn't have otherwise. He added that being in a foreign environment offered him insights on things that he feels an officer needs to know, "coming out of the gate."

"The biggest thing that I learned was how to adapt quickly," he explained. "And I learned how to look at every second as a chance to pick up something new from language, food, tactics, customs, and just different ways of doing (things). This really drove home the concept of trying something before you sign it off as useless."

But he also learned a little about himself.

"I learned how to broaden my horizons and (expand my) future. I learned that the smallest things can make you better if you learn how to capitalize on those opportunities," Alexander explained.

As an example of capitalizing on opportunities, Alexander was airborne qualified when he went to Spain, and while there participated in airborne operations -- an experience he said really got him hooked on parachuting. As a result, he took up skydiving as a sport. He now does it as a weekend job, has received an instructor rating and performs video work within the industry.

Through CULP, cadets like Alexander travel in groups of 10-15, to one of 40 countries during the summer months. Depending on the groups' mission, they will work with other militaries, teach conversational English to locals, attend foreign schools, such as mountaineering, or participate in humanitarian missions.

According to Jerry Hoffman, the language and culture deployment coordinator, the program selects the missions cadets will execute from requests submitted by the State Department and the overseas Army theater commands.

"CULP overseas training missions are demand driven," he explained. "We respond to requests from the theater Army command, the State Department and the county teams. However, we have more demand than we can supply."

Hoffman said that this year the international programs division, under which CULP is run, received 60 country-requests but there is only budget for 40 country-missions. The CULP program then prioritizes missions based on the Army service combatant commander's security cooperation priorities. The selection considerations also include the cost of the in-country event, ease of entry into the country, such as the ease of obtaining travel documents, the relative security of the country, and the opportunity to maximize culture training.

But the bottom line is that a mission has to offer good cultural and language interaction opportunities for cadets, and facilitate the partner-nation relationships, which are key security operations objectives. Otherwise, it won't be accepted.

More than half of the missions this year are Cadet English Language Training Team missions -- teaching conversational English to locals and military personnel.

The host countries ask for this training because of English speaking NATO requirements and Southeast Asia peacekeeping operations that are also conducted in English, which bring stability to their regions.

Additionally, English is an international language in which business and some political relations are conducted. Underdeveloped countries are often at a competitive disadvantage, due in part to their lack of English skills, Hoffman said. Helping countries become more economically stable is always a security operations objective.

This year the program also added a Language, Regional Expertise and Culture Competencies check list to the items cadets must complete to help track the progress they make toward their cultural immersion.

"The list gives cadets and cadre a concrete format of what they need to be accomplishing in preparation for these missions and what they should be getting out of them," Hoffman explained. "This is a continued education course, not a vacation."

Alexander, who majored in construction management and recently branched aviation, confirmed that there is a lot to learn. But he added that knowing about other cultures and languages will make the difference in a person's opportunities for the future.

"It is important for a college student to learn a second language and about other cultures because the world is evolving," Alexander said. "As more countries grow economically and industrially, their students will be branching more out into the world and be working alongside our students.

"Students from other countries will be inviting our students to join them on billion-dollars, multinational business enterprises and if you can communicate, there's your opportunity."

Cadet Travis Erwin, from Olive Hill, Ky., attends Morehead State University, and is hoping to capitalize on such opportunities gained through CULP. He is a member of the Kentucky National Guard and is using his educational benefits to learn International Studies.

Erwin, who has never been outside of the United States, will travel to Thailand this summer on a CULP mission, and is looking forward to learning about a different culture and language.

"Small towns are good, but you don't learn a lot living in a small town all the time," Erwin said. "I want to learn new things."

He added that he thinks language barriers will be difficult at first and getting used to living habits, food and local customs might prove interesting, but he looks forward to interaction with locals and providing a chance for them to understand Americans better.

Learning new things, seeing how other people live and experiencing their social values and norms is what Erwin wants to get out of his catalog of firsts. It's what he thinks will show people he is well-rounded.

"When I can put that I worked on a cadet mission in Thailand on my resume, that will show that I can work with different people from different backgrounds," Erwin said. "It say's 'Here's proof that I can.'"