Charlie Dunn It might be one of the River Region’s best-kept secrets. For others, it’s become a well-known and almost legendary way for members of our community to give back. Since the time of World War II, Maxwell Air Force Base has been lending a hand to international students enrolled in the International Officer School at Air University (AU). What began as a collaboration between the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce and AU, originally known as the International Sponsor Program, has now transformed into the Alabama Goodwill Ambassador Program that helps countless international students from over 80 countries better understand life in the state’s capital. The AGA program is not only a pivotal way for civilians to help students acclimate to life overseas, but it allows for volunteers to be introduced to new people and cultures and serves as a way to make long-lasting relationships that are fostered for years to come.
“Our AGA program has expanded from our early days when we began training French and British aviators, and as the world dynamic has changed, our customer base has increased. With approximately 85 countries involved, it’s a great cultural experience for our sponsors, and as they help people adjust to life here, lasting friendships are established,” said Captain Jessica Harris.
As these international students bring their families here to Montgomery, the AGA volunteers go above and beyond to not only be a friendly face, but also help acquaint them with the school system, obtain a rental car, learn English, or find a home. With shorter programs of up to three months to the yearlong sponsorship program, the AGA volunteers serve as an integral component to helping those who have left home to live life in the U.S. For Clay Benton, International Military Student Officer, he sees the volunteers’ role as one that helps make this a smooth transition as students are welcomed to our city with good ol’ Southern charm.
“We need to help our students acculturate to the U.S. where many things are unfamiliar. Without the programs we have, they would have no support mechanisms. Our volunteers help relieve them of anxiety where many things seem foreign. We want our students to enjoy life in our country. The term ‘Southern hospitality’ exists for a reason, and every person that leaves here misses Sweet Home Alabama,” Benton said.
At a core level, AGA volunteers help acquaint international students with living in Montgomery. On a larger, broader scale, the volunteers help to foster an understanding of what life is like in our country, something that ultimately benefits our nation as misperceptions of the U.S. are debunked.
“The AGA program benefits the whole country. The volunteers help leave lasting, good impressions about life in the U.S. The students’ perception of the U.S. will be formed factually by the time they spend in Montgomery, and people in the River Region have the opportunity to validate or invalidate anything negative that people from overseas have thought about the U.S.,” Benton said.
Both Harris and Benton encourage people of the River Region to volunteer as a sponsor. Harris notes that the experience of being an AGA sponsor is akin to traveling, and without leaving your home; you are exposed to new walks of life, new customs and new traditions. Quite simply, it’s not only a way to help, but it broadens the volunteers’ horizons – and it’s all done solely through interacting, no financial obligations required.
“The experience of volunteering helps to open different mindsets and evokes empathy to see someone else’s point-of-view. If you haven’t had the opportunity to travel, this program allows you to do so,” Harris said.
Benton agrees, and he succinctly summarizes why people of the River Region should partake in such an amazing opportunity to give back while simultaneously being a part of the world at large.
“You can travel around the world without leaving Montgomery. It’s a wonderful opportunity, and you can enrich your life. This is a great way to make an impact for the city, state and country, and it creates a lifetime impact on officers and most especially, the families,” Benton said.
For more information about how to volunteer either short-term or long term, contact the International Officer School at 334.953.7613.