Travel the world with the Host Family Sponsorship Program, and you won’t even need a plane ticket, said Russ Mott, chief of the International Military Student Office.
“The purpose of (the program),” Mott said, “is to get these international officers who are training at Fort Benning a family they can hang out with to get a better understanding of the American way of life. It’s a great way to build relationships with other countries and a friendship that’s lifelong.”
Roughly 1,200 international service members train on post through the IMSO every year. They attend one or more of the 27 courses taught here, and hail from more than 120 countries. Through connections with these soldiers, volunteers can learn about Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Central and South America without ever leaving the tricommunity, Mott said.
“There is no limit of students you can sponsor,” he said. “It’s how much you want to put into the program. The big purpose is to get the international officers and the host family sponsors a better understanding of both our country and their country and to build that friendship.”
When someone signs up to sponsor an international student, the IMSO provides a “culture gram” so the sponsor can learn the basics of life and etiquette in that society. But, Mott said the golden rule is a good guideline to follow.
“If you had to go to a country and it was your first time there and you had no other countryman there how would you want to be treated?” he said. “It’s your chance to act as a U.S. ambassador for these international officers. Have them over for dinner one night. Take them out if you’re going to go shopping or sightseeing. Call this international officer up and say, ‘Hey, I got an empty seat. I got a ticket. Come on with me.’ The bottom line is we want these guys to get outside the classroom.”
Erin Fourhman and her family have been involved with the sponsorship program since May. She heard about it through International Friendship Ministries, a local organization that helps soldiers and civilians from other countries feel at home here in the valley.
She first met the officers at a welcome lunch hosted by IFM for the new Maneuver Captains Career Course.“We had a great time just talking with people and playing games and laughing,” Fourhman said. “We made an immediate connection with two of the officers. During the six months they were here, we enjoyed inviting them over to our house, inviting them to go places with us, staying in touch with them, getting to know them and their culture.”Fourhman said sponsorship has benefits on both sides — “a two-way street.”
“It surprised them that we were so welcoming,” she said. “They told us they felt like they were part of our family while they were here. And we have found it very much to be a wonderful and a learning experience for us. Getting to know people from other countries has opened my eyes to see the world differently. Whenever I watch the news or I hear about other countries, I don’t just see countries, I see people.”
Fourhman has befriended soldiers from Pakistan, Taiwan, Egypt, Nigeria, Indonesia and Kenya. She still keeps in touch with many of them through email and phone after they’ve returned home. From some, she’s even received invitations to visit them in their country.
“This is really a neat opportunity,” she said. “For me, I know if I were to travel to another country for tourism or for studies or for training, I can only learn so much form seeing the tourist things. To really get to know the culture, you have to get to know the people.”
Being a host family doesn’t necessarily mean hosting expensive outings, Mott said. Picnics, a football game, fishing or a local concert are good choices, he said.
The IMSO also supports host families with special events such as meet-and-greets and farewell ceremonies.Sponsorship is open to everyone, including civilians off post. It’s especially great for families with children, Mott said. His own son grew up playing soccer — his sport of choice — with two dozen “big brothers,” some who still inquire after him years later.
“He can go to any country and be welcomed by these guys who have been a part of his life,” Mott said. “It’s just that amazing.”
Individuals interested in sponsorship are invited to a welcome reception at 7 p.m. March 1 at the Benning Conference Center. RSVP to 706-575-8854.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s a fun challenge to communicate across cultures,” Fourhman said. “I would definitely encourage American families to get involved. It’s a good opportunity to get to know the world. It’s changed my perspective.”
For more information, visit www.facebook.com/PTRPIMSO.