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ROTC's culture club

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Petite with luminous eyes behind a pensive stare, 20-year-old Amber Brewer looks too young to be charged with protecting the country. But don't let her youthful appearance fool you. Brewer, an Army Reserve officer training cadet, says she's confident that she'll know how to handle combat and lead a platoon when the time comes.

Brewer, a junior at Rochester Institute of Technology, is one of five ROTC Army cadets who recently returned from what some might describe as a culture slam. She was dropped in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's largest city, where her orders were to teach English to elementary school children for about a month.

But in many respects, Brewer was the student. She was in Tanzania to learn how to immerse herself in a place where she may not speak the language or look like any of the people around her. Learning how to quickly build relationships in a strange and possibly hostile setting could equip her with skills that may one day save her life.

"This gives you insight into what deployment is like," Brewer says. "I was excited to go, but I was also a little intimidated."

The ROTC assignment, known as the Cultural and Language Proficiency Program, is one of many requirements to graduate.

Military strategists have been debating whether wars are won with guns or butter almost as long as they've been waged. The answer is contingent on many factors, but the US military is increasingly emphasizing softer diplomacy and cultural understanding, says Donald Powell, ROTC recruiting operations officer at RIT.

Countries all over the world respect the military superiority of the US, he says, but that isn't always enough to prevent a military engagement.

A retired Army major who served in Iraq from 2004 to 2005, Powell says that the foreign excursions help cadets to develop empathy.

"We've learned from Iraq that running around shooting at insurgents isn't going to get you very far because in the end it doesn't work," he says.

Future soldiers will have to exercise their interpersonal skills to work with civilians on the battlefield, Powell says.

"If you go in there with this total American perspective, they will shut you out," he says. "Bottom line: We know that culture matters."

Brewer says that teaching English is a good way to build confidence because it facilitates communication. She says that most of what she learned about the Tanzanians came from sitting and talking with them.

"They [the students] wouldn't look you in the eye as a sign of respect," Brewer says. "And as we talked to adults, they would expect us to look down as a sign of respect for them."

Education is held in high regard, she says — maybe more so than in the US.

"They're very eager to learn everything," Brewer says. "But they were also very curious about personal things. Did I have a boyfriend? What is it like to date in the US?"

Peter Harris could readily fill in for one of the young recruits in military ads — the guys with the razor-clean good looks, strong jaw lines, and step-to-it attitudes. The 20-year-old Harris is a junior at RIT and his CULP assignment sent him to Sibiu, a small town in Romania.

"It was very traditional," he says. "The tallest building was maybe five stories."

Harris was one of 10 cadets from around the country who went to Sibiu and worked with young Romanians who were preparing for military careers in their own country.

Harris says that his main objective was to better understand Romanians' perceptions of Americans and how they formed them.

"In the beginning it was a little tough because they thought that all Americans were like Jersey Shore, the reality show," Harris says. "They're really into reality shows. They thought we were fat, arrogant, and that we think we're better than everyone else."

It wasn't exactly the optimal attitude for building a relationship. But Harris says that he began to see that at least some of those beliefs were shaped by the former Romanian government, which didn't trust Westerners.

"Just 26 years ago they were part of the Soviet bloc," Harris says. "And there are still some remnants of that."

Harris's CULP assignment lasted about a month, and he says that by the end, he and his fellow cadets had formed friendships with their Romanian peers.

"On the last night we were there, their cadets and leaders hosted a fairly large dinner for us," he says. "It was appreciative. We talked about if they were ever to come here, it would be instantaneous friendship. I felt like we really got to know each other, which is good because those cadets could be leaders in their army someday."

Brewer and Harris and many of their peers say that they joined the ROTC partly because they were offered scholarships. The organization, which was formed in 1916 under President Woodrow Wilson, was created to develop leadership and military training at universities around the country. The cadets graduate as commissioned second lieutenants in the Army, the lowest ranking officers.

All scholarship recipients have to commit to at least eight years of military service. And while they're in school, they must meet high academic standards while fulfilling their training requirements.

It's a rigorous process, says Adriana Natali, 21, a University of Rochester student and ROTC cadet at RIT. Her ROTC class of 13 started out much larger, she says.

"A lot of people drop out along the way," she says. About one-third of the cadets never make it to graduation or commissioning."

"You have the college [culture], but ROTC is its own subculture," Natali says. "Normal college kids have so much more time because they don't have this commitment. It's a huge challenge academically, and then you have to maintain your physical standards. It's sort of like being an athlete. We're always training."

Natali, whose CULP assignment was in a small mountain village in Costa Rica, will graduate in the spring of 2014. From there she's headed to medical school to become an Army orthopedic surgeon.

She took Spanish all through high school and says that she thought she knew the language well until she landed in Costa Rica.

"I went with the attitude that I would be really good at this," Natali says. "And I wasn't as good as I thought I was."

But she says that one of her biggest challenges was adjusting to "the personal space issue."

"In this country, we have our three-foot bubble and if you come any closer or try to touch me, I might become a little hostile," she says. "But it's very normal for people there to come up and touch you. And if you back away, that's considered rude."

A fair-skinned blonde with a combustible laugh, Natali says that it was common for people to walk up and touch her hair.

"I had never been to another country to work with people I didn't know like this," she says. "But you have to take what you learn here [at RIT] and adapt it to a different culture. This is all about learning how to adapt."

Despite her training, Natali says that she does worry about her real deployment date.

"It worries me every day, but I want to go through with this," she says. "I think it's completely worth it."

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