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Complex environments demand culturally adept leaders

Thursday, November 01, 2012

If you move from Los Angeles, Calif., to Luverne, Ala., you would experience it. Or, if you travel from your home in Miami, Fla., to Hazard, Ky., you also go through it.

It’s uneasiness, or a type of cultural awareness, to be more precise.

Not every place in the U.S. is the same.

There is country living and city living; different ideas of religion and politics – and, while we all might speak English, different areas of the country have different dialects and slang.

And, what might be a culinary delicacy in one part of the country is fish bait in the other.

Now, imagine that you are in another country – the culture is different, the language is foreign, politics and religion are intermixed, and the value system is unlike anything you’ve known.

You can’t communicate and, when you do, there are gulfs of lost information and miscommunication.

But, the job you have been given requires you to work, live and speak with the locals in the area.

That’s what soldiers who work outside the United States do every day.

Prior to 2001, the Army had not incorporated cultural curriculum and guidance into its general preparation and training, so cultural ignorance worked against U.S. and host nation goals.

Due in part to a 2005 Department of Defense document titled "Defense Language Transformation Roadmap," the Army is creating basic language and cultural expertise in the officer, civilian and enlisted ranks for the active and reserve components.

CULP – the Cultural Understanding and Language Proficiency program – is the special Army ROTC program designed to reduce miscommunication and cultural misunderstandings.

According to Ray Causey, chief of the Culture and Language Division at U.S. Army Cadet Command, CULP is designed to immerse Army ROTC cadets in various languages, cultures and socio-economic realities so they can learn, through personal experience, about the places and people in an area of the world in which they may be one day serving.

Causey also considers ethnocentrism versus universality an educational tool.

"I define the psychological concept of ‘universality’ to mean we, as human beings, are one big family, all in the same boat so to speak," Causey said.

Adding, "As soldiers become more culturally astute, they gain cultural understanding and an appreciation of other peoples. They become more aware that, world-wide, people seek peace, subsistence, happiness, etc."

While the program sends cadets to different countries around the world for cultural immersion, it is actually a two-part program.

The first part is made up of on-campus programs that provide educational courses in foreign languages and associated cultural studies. The second part is the summer overseas missions.

Those missions take cadets, in groups of 10 to 15, to one of more than 40 countries ranging from Angola and Kyrgyzstan to Mozambique and the Ukraine for several weeks each year.

While there, depending on the group’s mission, they will work with other militaries, teach English to locals, attend foreign schools – such as mountaineering – or participate in humanitarian missions.

In fact, Causey said, a significant number of security cooperation events with Combatant Commands – those located overseas – are CULP related.

Those events would include building partner-nation relationships which are key security operations objections.

Causey added that as a result of the missions not only do cadets learn about other cultures, but they will become better leaders in the Army from the experience.

Sgt. 1st Class Ronnie Winberry, a military science ROTC instructor at Valley Forge Military College, is one of the instructors who accompany cadets on their overseas missions.

Winberry said he enjoys watching the growth – both personal and professional – that he sees in cadets on these trips. And, he added, that he is rewarded on these missions too.

"I enjoy leaving my personal stamp on the development of cadets from programs outside my own," he explained.

Adding, "And I get to learn about other places I’d never plan on visiting or have the opportunity to visit. We also establish relationships with people in the host country that [we] visit."

Winberry said part of a cadet’s development is the culture shock that takes place on CULP missions.

The program prepares cadets for exposure to people and customs that might be outside of their comfort zone.

"An important part of being successful in the Army is understanding we all come from different backgrounds and cultures. These types of trips help reinforce that by making cadets live outside their comfort zone for three weeks – a direct injection of a world vastly different from their own," Winberry said.

"Cadets also become familiar with that region of the world, and the hope is that they continue to learn about that region through relationships they establish while there," he added.

Cadet Andrew Blum, who attends the University of Delaware, traveled to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, in 2011.

He explained that there are different levels of awareness cadets gain on these overseas missions and seeing the conditions in which other people live is only one aspect.

"Every day was an adventure – the country was a beautiful fusion of people, history, and nature overflowing with ideas, beliefs, and traditions," Blum explained.

Adding, "But I quickly realized that through their eyes I was an outsider. The looks on their faces gave me insight to what they were thinking. Questions like: ‘Who are you?’ ‘Why are you taking my picture?’ ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Are we friends, brothers or enemies?’

"It dawned on me, [during] one of the days we were shopping in the markets for souvenirs, that the money I just spent on an ebony wood carving was probably more money than the wood carver would make all month," Blum said.

Adding, "After that I tried to be more aware of how I might appear to the locals and to better understand their way of life."

But, Blum said that while the trip gave him good cultural insight to another people’s way of life, it also taught him a few things about himself.

"The Tanzanians taught me how fortunate and blessed I am to live in the United States. Tanzanians are willing to give you the shirt off their back, and they work very hard to make a living and provide what they can for their families," Blum said.

"It is hard to think there are kids in the United States that complain about doing homework when there are kids in Africa that pray someday they will come to America to learn or even be able to afford their own textbook.

"It is something that I try to keep in mind every time I come across a difficult challenge or even the simplest task and resort to the habit of complaining. We truly live in the greatest country in the whole world, so we should be thankful for the things we do have and never take anything for granted," he added.

Lt. Col. Marc "Dewey" Boberg, the battalion commander, professor and chair for the Department of Military Science at Brigham Young University, said all CULP missions have one thing in common – a unique opportunity to learn a foreign language, and to live a foreign culture.

"That means living like the locals do, eating their food, and seeking to learn as much about their government, geography, dances, customs, beliefs and really striving to be a member of a new community," Boberg said.

"They shouldn’t expect it to be a vacation, but rather expect to work and create a true international experience where they are stretched to their limits in all things and can really learn about themselves and others."