FORT LEE, Va. (Aug. 25, 2011) -- Education has long been a tool for building understanding, cooperation and respect between individuals and groups. America's military, through the International Military Education and Training program, has done this for 50 years. At the Army Logistics University at Fort Lee, the International Military Student Office oversees the training of more than 120 students from 52 countries.

Here in Central Virginia, the international students' focus is on logistics. They are enrolled in the ordnance, quartermaster and transportation Basic Officer Leaders Course, Combined Logistics Captains Career Course, Theater Logistics and a master's program with Florida Institute of Technology among many other instructional programs.

International students from as near as Jamaica and Canada are studying side by side with students from as far away as Thailand and Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia, with 22 students, has the largest contingent. The nations with only one student currently here are Armenia, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Ghana, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Moldova, Mongolia, Morocco, Pakistan, Portugal, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, St. Kitts, Swaziland, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tunisia, Ukraine and Yemen.

"Providing educational opportunities for military members from allied and friendly countries benefits military-to-military relations," said Richard Helfer, director of IMSO. "It increases the understanding and defense cooperation between the United States and foreign countries. Our program also boosts the ability of foreign national military and civilian personnel to absorb and maintain basic democratic values and protect internationally recognized human rights."

Fort Lee's IMSO is one of about 150 military schools and installations that provide formal military and technical instruction in more than 4,000 courses to roughly 7,000 foreign students a year, according to IMET's website. Mobile education teams also take curriculum to host countries. Key senior military and civilian officials may be offered orientation tours in the U.S. On-the-job training opportunities are part of the program as well.

In fiscal 2008, the U.S. Department of State provided about $85 million to fund students from more than 140 nations. IMET's training is professional and non-political. Foreign students are exposed to U.S. professional military organizations and procedures as they have an opportunity to observe military organizations functioning under civilian control. IMET also introduces participants to elements of U.S. democracy such as the judicial system, legislative oversight, free speech and equality issues.

The IMSO is responsible for monitoring academic progress as well as providing any assistance a student may need with courses. Helfer's staff also provides socialization, recreation and cultural enrichment opportunities for the students. "The IMSO's Field Studies Program seeks to ensure that students return to their homelands with an understanding of the responsibilities of governments, militaries and citizens to protect, preserve and respect the rights of every individual," said Helfer.

IMET's objectives are supported by the volunteers who serve as social sponsors for international students. "Since most international students are in the U.S. for the first time," Helfer said, "it is important to experience America and Americans as they really are rather than as what the students may have heard before coming to Fort Lee."

Becoming a social sponsor means volunteering to provide one or more international students, and possibly their families, with an opportunity to become acquainted with American life in the broadest sense. This could be including them in a family cookout, taking them to a religious service with you or playing a game of tennis in the community. "This is a great opportunity to broaden both your and the international student's horizons and to make the world a smaller place," said Helfer.

Rebecca Freeze, a retired colonel and one of IMSO's volunteers, said sponsorship is "such a great opportunity to share the really neat parts of our culture." It also gives her a chance to learn about other cultures.

Freeze lives on a small farm near Fort Pickett so she has an opportunity to introduce international students to rural life on Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. She also includes students in her informal Saturday morning coffee gathering for local women.

A bit of serendipity brought 2nd Lt. Leah Dissek to sponsorship. She arrived for her Basic Officers Leadership Course several months early and was assigned to IMSO for the interim. Dissek had traveled quite a bit as part of her work before joining the Army, so she felt right at home at IMSO whether she was making coffee or escorting international students around post or on trips to the nation's capital city. She has become a sponsor so that she can continue that involvement while she's a BOLC student.

Dissek enjoys learning about different cultures and spending time with the students. "(Sponsorship) will not only benefit my career, but it has allowed me to forge lasting personal relationships that I hope will continue a lifetime," she said.

To volunteer as a social sponsor, call Field Studies Program Manager Becky Joyner at (804) 765-8159 or e-mail Freeze and Dissek, said Joyner, "have been invaluable to the mission of this office in fostering a friendly relationship that has helped us in our efforts to achieve international understanding and world peace. I would take a million just like them."