FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — Fort Leonard Wood’s International Military Student Office is helping to bring cultures together through the shared experiences and relationships formed in the Friendship Ambassador program.
According to IMSO’s Field Studies Program Manager Micah Pereza, the program pairs international military students temporarily studying here with volunteer civilians in the Fort Leonard Wood and surrounding communities. The goal of which is to educate the students about American culture through hands-on participation in daily activities.
“We want to show the international military students how Americans live and work, what we do in our leisure time, the activities we like to do, how we worship and pretty much everything about the American way of life,” Pereza said. “It shows them not only what we do as far as civilians that work with the program but offers them the opportunity to see how Americans live.”
Activities can range from hiking and fishing trips to tourism — or a simple trip to the grocery store, Pereza said. Students are typically here for five to seven months to attend one of the installation’s leadership courses, and they are often without transportation to get out and see the local area. Friendship Ambassadors can help with that, too, if they want — it’s all about building relationships.
“(One of the biggest benefits of the program) is the friendships that come out of it,” Pereza said. “We have several Friendship Ambassadors who have been doing this for more than 10 years, and they still talk to students they had when they first started the program.”
The effects from the relationships built through the pairings can be long term and far reaching, according to Pereza. Some volunteers have even traveled to the home countries of their students and met their extended families. Some receive birthday and Christmas cards and regular updates.
“The friendships that come out of it — they’re lifelong,” he said. “They not only form that student’s opinion about the United States and our way of life, but they take that back to their country and they can share that with their friends and family back home.”
The opportunity to engage with students from other countries and cultures can have a positive impact on the Americans who volunteer, too, Pereza said. The exposure to cultures outside of their own is often surprising.
“We’ve had several people who have never left the state of Missouri, and their eyes kind of widen when they meet students from around the world,” he said.
Local resident, Linda Gifford, has been a Friendship Ambassador for 13 years. She has lost count of the number of international students who have come through her door, but said their impact is long lasting.
Gifford said her favorite part of being a Friendship Ambassador is building relationships with the students and seeing America through their eyes, which she said makes her appreciate what this country has to offer.
“That’s what I love (about the program),” she said. “We don’t look at our life through our eyes; we get to see it through their eyes. We took a group to a local aquarium, and one of the guys took 500 pictures, he was so excited. And then, in return, they took me to an Indian restaurant. So, they share a lot of their culture with you as well. I love that part.”
Osetse Ofetotse is a captain with the Botswana Defense Force, who began participating in the program in February. He said going on short trips with his Friendship Ambassadors and meeting new people was a highlight of his experience.
“I enjoyed it, because I had less people that I know in America, so they exposed me to so many people,” he said. “Especially going to the Bible studies, because you start by mingling around and talking to other people, who are telling the heart of their stories of their lives.”
He was also happy for the opportunity to leave his hotel on the weekends — a place that could feel lonely at times — and to discuss his culture with the volunteers.
“I didn’t know anyone here, so when the Friendship Ambassador stepped in, now I knew I had activity during the weekends instead of just being in the hotel,” he said. “They asked me a lot about my country, so I was so open to them,” he said. “They knew a lot about me, and then I asked them about the culture of Americans.”
Those interested in volunteering to be a Friendship Ambassador are encouraged to call the IMSO at 573.563.2662 or 0068 for more information.
Additionally, Pereza mentioned the upcoming Know Your World event, scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Aug. 19 at Nutter Field House. The event provides attendees the opportunity to speak with students from 43 countries and learn about their cultures and customs.