By Terrance BellMay 31, 2018
FORT LEE, Va. (April 24, 2018) -- It would not be a stretch to say Capt. Tyler Weightman has experienced life in many a country without actually stepping foot in them.
The 35-year-old husband and father of three has seized opportunities to expand his world beyond its physical space through relationships formed as a sponsor of foreign personnel assigned to the International Military Student Office at the Army Logistics University.
Weightman's virtual travel experiences over the past five years have been facilitated by the 24 individuals he has hosted, representing the nations of Liberia, Poland, Korea, Belize, Lebanon and others.
"I've only been to one or two of these countries," said the commander of Bravo Company, 16th Ordnance Battalion, "so, this has been my opportunity to experience the places I haven't traveled to in a way I can't by reading what's on 'Travelocity' or 'Lonely Planet.'"
The captain is one of roughly 40 volunteer sponsors who help to enhance foreign student visits to the U.S. while they attend military training at Fort Lee. They organize dinners, accompany students to the mall and answer questions - generally serving in the capacity of an unofficial ambassador.
"I hope (my family and I are) putting forward the best America has to offer," Weightman said, simultaneously noting he steers away from whitewashing the realities of living here.
For the record, roughly 350 foreign students attend Sustainment Center of Excellence courses on a yearly basis. Most are officers assigned to ALU. All have academic sponsors, but many lack social sponsorship, which depends on volunteers. Without them, some students may be robbed of a substantial cultural experience during their stay in the U.S., said retired Sgt. Maj. Donna King, IMSO field studies director.
"Many of the international students are in the United States for the first time," she said. "A sponsor can be very helpful by clarifying and answering questions about our country and the local area. These exchanges provide knowledge about our culture that can go a long way toward fostering a great relationship. Some of these last a lifetime. The sponsorship program is about learning other people's life experiences and sharing ideas and information; it's about building bridges and tearing down walls."
Expressing great appreciation for "bridge builders" like Weightman, King noted more volunteer sponsors are certainly needed. "It would be superb if I could get one social sponsor for each international military student we have in house," she observed. "I'm sure the students would be even more delighted if we achieved that milestone because of the difference it makes in turning their visit into a more meaningful experience."
Even though the IMSO regularly schedules group trips and other activities for students, King further explained, without sponsorship, they face the challenge of learning the finer details of American culture and surroundings without the needed facilitation. Sponsors - through shared family meals, trips to movie theaters and other recreational activities - have the potential to fill in the blanks and provide for a richer cultural experience.
"We look for our community sponsors to provide experiences that highlight American lifestyles and customs by inviting (their IMS student) to holidays and family events such as birthday parties, weddings, baptisms, football games, cookouts, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and any other activities that highlight our traditions," said King. "At least once a month, sponsors should invite the student to participate in some type of activity. Entertainment need not be lavish; in fact, students prefer experiencing day-to-day 'American life.' Most of all, we want the sponsor to make the student feel 'at home' away from home."
Weightman, a Wisconsin native and 14-year Soldier, said he participated in the sponsorship program because it is not "regimented or rigorous." Additionally, he did not force an activity agenda on students, instead prioritizing what they were interested in. There were many times, however, when he found food to be a reliable standby.
"I love food," he said. "I've always enjoyed cooking and eating. If someone else thinks it's a delicacy, then I'll try it at least once. That's usually where our conversation will start." From there, the accommodation is to invite students to a restaurant or to his home to help prepare meals they are accustomed to, said Weightman.
"Richmond has a diaspora from all over the world. It's a city where you can hit up Halal markets, South American markets - you can find just about anything you want," he said. "We'll take a Saturday, go up there, get a bunch of ingredients and come back to the house."
Weightman said his accommodations have allowed for some rewarding experiences. He recalled sponsoring two Lebanese officers - one Christian, one Muslim; one single, one married - over the course of several months and occasions.
"We'd go shopping in Richmond, or they'd want to go looking for certain things. They'd come out for dinner or we'd go to dinner; and we had conversations you'd think were off limits such as politics and religion. Well, guess what? When you get to know people, they want to talk about politics and religion. It's what they hold close and feel comfortable talking about."
The differences between the countrymen - if there were any at all - disappeared over time, said Weightman. "They became close friends, and that became 'the picture' for me. They made this work. They may have been fundamentally different on a religious level, but they (were similar as) patriots, both defending their nation. We found the ideals we all hold in common."
Weightman said the students are generally grateful for sponsorship and regularly show their appreciation, but he found that delving into the world of international relations has been far more beneficial to him than to students or the program in general.
"I would hope the people I still keep in contact with had as positive of an experience as I did, but I can only speak from my perspective and the fact that these interactions and friendships are things I'll always have. As long as I have memory and cognition, I can always look back with fondness and say 'I remember when we did this' or 'I remember when we met this person and they became our friends.' ... Those are of some of the brighter spots of my time at Fort Lee with my family."
Aside from the friendships and memorable occasions, the sponsorship programs - there are many throughout the U.S. military - are part of the ongoing, broad-based efforts to strengthen America's ties with its allies. King said one such program directly benefited her while she served in Southwest Asia.
"When I attended the Sergeants Major Academy, I sponsored a couple of international students whom I later ran into while I was deployed to Afghanistan," she recalled. "They supported me by offering advice and assistance on such things as transportation, warehouse facilities, and places to get equipment for establishing my area of operation. Having a friend when far from home was a win-win situation, especially under those circumstances."
The idea of enhanced relations with allies is portable and pays dividends, said Weightman, who is scheduled to soon fill a slot in Kuwait. He said he looks forward to laying the groundwork now for a more informed deployment using all he learned as a sponsor.
"My goal is to meet somebody from Kuwait here, and then re-establish that relationship when I arrive," he said.
Military and civilian personnel are eligible to become sponsors. Applicants are required to complete a short questionnaire during signup. For more information about the program, call IMSO at (804) 765-8159 or 765-4012.