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Extensive international travel is a given for many members of the armed forces.
But imagine being a young college student, having never been away from home and suddenly finding yourself in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and know little to nothing about the culture.
That’s the position Michelle Bravo found herself in during her first-ever deployment to Germany as a 19-year-old ROTC student.
“They dropped me off and there I was. I had never been away from home, I had to figure out how to get a driver’s license, I didn’t speak any foreign languages,” she said.
That uncomfortable situation is now happening less and less to our ROTC students thanks to Project GO, a nationwide training program sponsored by the Defense Language and National Security Education Office within the U.S. Department of Defense that provides the students with the opportunity for intensive study of critical foreign languages and the chances to use that knowledge abroad.
For four years, Bravo served as Project GO’s executive officer for the Army ROTC at Arizona State University.
“Having gone through those experiences, and through the ROTC experience, I understand what it’s like to be a college student seeking academic experience but also being involved in the military,” she said. “It’s amazing what they’re doing now with Project GO.”
ASU is one of 25 universities in the U.S. that offer the program, and it specializes in Russian, Turkish and Indonesian. The languages offered by each university vary based on each institution’s capacity to teach them.
Through Project GO, ROTC students from any university in the country can apply to participate in a three-month summer program during which they spend time both at ASU learning the language and abroad using the language and being immersed in the culture daily.
“Most of the universities, students just go to the university and study or they go abroad. But ASU does both,” said Kathleen Evans-Romaine, director of ASU’s Critical Languages Institute who oversees its summer and academic-year study-abroad programs.
Evans-Romaine explained that because ROTC students often have service-related obligations to fulfill during their summers and rigorous schedules during the academic year, taking advantage of study abroad opportunities can be difficult.
“For many students this is their only chance, which is why we give them both; that is, we train them [at ASU] and also take them abroad. So they get the language and then they go over and they can get an insider’s view of the culture since they know the language to some extent,” she said.
“It’s a very different experience than going over there and being a tourist or having somebody take you around and living with a host family but speaking English the whole time.”
For Parker Smith, a cadet in the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) who spent two months in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, the chance for that kind of cultural immersion was the best part.
Smith said he and his host family “spent many hours discussing each other’s cultures, traditions, beliefs and just life in general — all over tea and a variety of national dishes, of course.”
During the week, Smith and fellow ASU AFROTC cadet Forrest Babbitt would attend class every morning, where they studied grammar and expanded their vocabularies.
The course, Babbitt said, was rigorous: “I was busy, and it took a lot of effort and energy out of me … but it was all worth it.”
According to Smith, though, the “true learning experience … came when we met with local youth that were assigned to us as tutors.”
Along with their tutors, Smith and Babbitt would often spend their weekends in Kyrgyzstan swimming in the pristine waters of Lake Issyk Kul with the austere snow-capped Tian Shan mountain range visible in the distance.
Or they would explore the city, perusing museums, shopping at bazaars and sampling local cuisine. They went on hikes that ended at the top of roaring waterfalls, excursions to villages where they constructed yurts and listened to traditional Kyrgyz folklore “while drinking fermented horse milk and gnawing on sheep meat,” Smith said.
“All of these experiences helped me to understand the rich history and diverse lifestyle of the Kyrgyz people,” he said.
The most challenging part of the experience for Smith? Coming home.
Now he’s looking forward to attending med school after graduation and hopes to eventually become a doctor in the Air Force. He plans to use the Russian he learned to help him provide humanitarian aid in the parts of the world where the language is spoken.
Babbitt has designs on becoming a pilot in the U.S. Air Force, which he points out would include a lot of traveling, something that makes being multilingual crucial. But he also observes that learning about other languages and cultures is about more than increasing job prospects.
“Part of becoming a better person is learning more about other people and putting yourself in their shoes,” Babbitt said. “This is exactly what study abroad teaches.”
Bravo would be proud. One of the biggest rewards for her, as a leader in the Army and of ROTC students, she said, is “watching them blossom into leaders themselves.”
The deadline for applications for the summer 2016 sessions is Jan. 29, 2016.