FORT BLISS, Texas - Imagine moving to a foreign country for more than a year and having to adapt to a new culture and customs while struggling with a language barrier at a demanding academic institution. This is reality for the international military students that attend class at the U.S Army Sergeants Major Academy every year.
Fortunately, these students have a guide to assist them with their transition to the U.S. and USASMA, the International Military Support Office.
According to Michael Huffman, director of international affairs at USASMA, the IMSO helps international students achieve personal and professional growth by providing administrative, academic and community sponsorship, and it teaches the students about the American way of life with a field studies program.
The sponsorship process begins before the students arrive to the U.S. Huffman explained after international students are identified to come to the Sergeants Major Course, the IMSO helps the student and their family with registering for visas, securing housing and making travel arrangements.
He said administrative support continues after the student arrives here by making sure the student receives assistance with every aspect of integrating into U.S. society, like enrolling their children in school, purchasing a vehicle, and translating documents.
“When I came to the U.S., I didn’t know how things worked here,” said Sgt. Maj. of the Kosovo Security Forces Genc Metaj, the only senior enlisted adviser in the history of the KSF. “The IMSO picked me up from the airport and provided me with everything I needed. I was in a foreign country with a different culture and environment, but I didn’t have to worry about anything. They make our time here easier and better.”
The Sergeants Major Course is made easier for international students because of the IMSO’s academic sponsorship program.
Academic sponsors are U.S. soldiers that volunteer to be an international student’s battle buddy for the entire Sergeants Major Course. Huffman added that the academic sponsor and the international student do everything together during the course, like sitting and working together in each class, and helping each other understand culture and military doctrine.
“When being around a U.S. sergeant major for almost a year, you learn from their experiences,” Metaj, a Lipjan, Kosovo, native, said. “Most of the learning process is based on group discussions. We analyze what happened in the past. We share our opinions about what was supposed to happen, what was good, and what was bad from the past wars.”
Academic sponsorship isn’t one-sided because the U.S. soldiers learn from their international friends too. Master Sgt. Robert Fortenberry, an infantryman from Marietta, Ga., recalled an unusual experience with his battle buddy, Sgt. Maj. Toshiki Iwasaki, helicopter aviation sergeant major with the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force.
Fortenberry said during the cold and flu season, Iwasaki came to class wearing a doctor’s mask, and it alarmed all the students in the class. He explained that in the Japanese culture people wear a mask because it is disrespectful to pass germs to other people; even if you have a small cough.
Sponsorship doesn’t end in the classroom. Huffman said the IMSO is also responsible for teaching the international students about the American way of life, and it does this with community sponsorship and the field studies program.
Community sponsors are local citizens from El Paso, Texas, and the surrounding areas, such as doctors, professors, teachers or other members of society. He said the community sponsors volunteer to spend time with the international students after work and on the weekends, so the students can experience life as an everyday American citizen.
These experiences include activities that may be second-nature to an American, but these activities, such as going to a ballgame or celebrating a birthday or Thanksgiving, may be culture shock for an international student.
Iwasaki from Ise, Japan, experienced the difference between an American birthday party and a Japanese birthday celebration during his time here. “The [birthday] party in the U.S. is huge compared to my country,” he said. “Normally, we celebrate inside the family.”
He said he was overwhelmed when instructors, fellow students and friends attended his birthday party. It was too much for him to take in, and Iwasaki added that his 3-year-old son was also uncomfortable because too many people were at the party.
Community sponsorship helps the international students learn American culture, customs and traditions, but their education about America isn’t complete without the field studies program.
The field studies program allows the international students to learn the geopolitics of America by visiting significant institutions at the local, state and federal levels of government, as well as businesses and museums, said Huffman.
To learn about U.S. government, the students sit in on a city council meeting and are briefed by the mayor of El Paso. Huffman said they also visit the state capitol and have lunch with Rep. Joe Picket and retired Sen. Ken Armbrister, who both explain the roles of a Texas congressman.
Then, they visit Washington and have lunch with U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke to learn about the role of the federal government.
Other trips include visiting the U.S. Mint in Denver, to learn about the American monetary process, the Pentagon to meet Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III, and government organizations such as the FBI and U.S. Border Patrol field offices in El Paso.
“It’s everything about America,” Huffman said. “When they leave here, [the international students] know more about America than most Americans.”
The sponsorship program isn’t all about the international students learning America. It also allows Americans to learn about the world from a different perspective. The students visit local schools and universities to brief Americans about the environmental impacts of war, genocide, geography, social studies and world history from their country’s experiences and perspective.
“When an American family is sitting around the dinner table and everyone is talking about their day, this fourth-grade kid can share with his family that he was briefed by the sergeant major from Germany or the Netherlands about their country,” Huffman said. “Hopefully, this helps build a more tolerant and educated America than if that international student didn’t come to USASMA and visit their classroom.”
International students in the USASMA classrooms are a significant mission enhancement tool for the U.S. in any theater of operations, he said.
Iwasaki was appointed class leader at USASMA to help prepare the sergeants major for working in a joint environment.
“Sometimes a foreign sergeant major becomes a leader in a coalition force. You guys have to obey the orders from the foreign sergeant major. This is a significant experience for future missions.”
Fortenberry agreed with Iwasaki that if U.S. soldiers understand how a foreign sergeant major communicates and prioritizes his workload, it makes transitioning to a joint planning environment easy.
“The IMSO helps international students become tolerant and well-rounded leaders that have a situational awareness of their surrounding environment and the world,” Huffman said. “When they go back to their country, they have a big picture of the world.”