Orientation program helps international families adjust

by Kelly Deichert
Air University Public Affairs

6/17/2011 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Helping families adjust to life in America is part of the International Officer Schools commitment to foreign students learning at Maxwell Air Force Base.

The International Family Orientation Program helps spouses develop survival skills, ranging from using American money and credit cards to calling 911 and weather safety. The course meets daily from 8 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday, June 27 through July 8, excluding July 1 and 4, at Maxwell Elementary School.

"The purpose is to reduce the anxiety of culture shock," said George McCarthy, acting director of the International Officer School.

"They talk a lot about what we take for granted," Mr. McCarthy said, such as coupons and car seats.

During the orientation, spouses discover what it is like being an American family from guest speakers discussing school enrollment, security issues and safety. They also learn about base resources available to them during their time in America. The group will go to the commissary to learn about an American grocery store and which cuts of meat and vegetables are available.

The school hosts a garage sale, allowing the families to purchase clothes, books and appliances while developing money-handling skills. Since the IFOP focuses on culture, the school also offers a six-week International Dependents English Course in September.

Despite language and cultural differences, international families learn that they have the same values as Americans, who also support their families and want the best for their children. This is why the IFOP includes kids, who attend their own workshop focused on fun. They go on trips, including the Montgomery Zoo, bowling centers, pool and base theater. Children of adults who volunteer with the program can spend time with international children as young ambassadors.

"(International children) learn we do the same things that they do at home, just in a different language," Mr. McCarthy said.

The program would not be possible without the dedication of volunteers and donations. Last year, more than 50 adults and 70 children helped more than 60 spouses and 100 children from more than 40 countries.

The Air Command and Staff College Spouses Group donated $3,500 to the program.

"Without the annual donation from the spouses' group, the IFOP program would not exist," said Staci Rowell, whose husband, Lt. Col. Robert Rowell, is a squadron commander at ACSC. "We are the largest supporter of the program."

The group raises funds annually through bake sales and a yearly cookbook featuring recipes from international families, students, spouses, faculty and staff.

"It is important for us to help out, because these families travel here from more than 40 different countries," she said. "Most of them do not speak our language or do not know anything about our culture. This program gives them the opportunity to learn, alongside their children, the ins and out of the American way."

The program benefits the American students as well.

"In turn, the international families are able to share with us some of their customs," she said.

The IFOP is part of the International Officer School's larger commitment to building relationships between foreign and American students. The goal of the school, which has provided support to more than 11,000 students since 1946, the goal also is to ensure the needs of international students are met with encouragement and outreach. When American service members are stationed overseas, they are usually assigned to a base with support. The situation for international students at Maxwell is different.

"None of these officers have a base in this country," said Mike Homan, dean of students at IOS.

Mr. Homan meets with various agencies around Montgomery and Alabama to ensure the students and families have the support they need while visiting America.

"We collect info to make sure students are well informed and can make good decisions while they are here," he said.

The school hosts its own workshops for students, covering research skills, conduct and customs, and military culture. Students learn American culture and history first-hand through trips to Mount Vernon, Arlington National Cemetery and Ellis Island.

"We support them and their families the whole time they're here," Mr. McCarthy said.