Lois Kastner grew up with a father in the Air Force, and she and her family traveled extensively. Part of the joy of that lifestyle included meeting many people from different countries, such as a young German couple she met in 1959 as neighbors who remain her good friends to this day.
With her deep interest in meeting those from other nations, Kastner and her husband, David, particularly enjoy sponsoring international students who attend the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.
She estimates they have officially or unofficially sponsored hundreds of international students, including their wives and children, since 2006.
“My parents always taught me, ‘You get out of something directly proportionate to what you invest,” Kastner said. “‘If you do nothing, you get nothing.’”
She and her husband have gotten plenty out of sponsoring international students, she said, and have become very close to many of them and their families. They are even traveling soon to Jordan to meet with five families they have befriended over the years.
Their goodbyes from post can get emotional, Kastner said.
“These families put so much trust in me and my husband to help them and their children,” she said. “Every year when they get ready to leave, everybody cries and the children don’t want to go home, the wives don’t want to go home. We’ve had officers who have truly changed their career path to provide another year in the U.S. for their family.”
Jim Fain, director of CGSC’s International Military Student Division, said the post has sponsored international students since 1894. Under the current system, about 120 international students attend the two yearly CGSC classes — 70 come in the summer and 50 come in the winter.
Each international student has three sponsors: one from Fort Leavenworth who is either a uniformed military service member, a Department of the Army civilian or a contractor; one from the Leavenworth or Lansing area provided by the Leavenworth-Lansing Area Chamber of Commerce’s Operation International; and one sponsor provided by the Greater Kansas City Area People-to-People International organization. The organizations recruit and match sponsors to international officers.
Each organization tries to assign people fairly, Fain said, adding that a ground rule of the program is that sponsors cannot host an international student from the same country for more than two consecutive years.
There is always a need for sponsors, Fain noted.
“We have sponsors who are just doing it for the first time and we’ve got sponsors who have been sponsoring close to 40 years,” Fain said. “They would all tell you that they get more out of it than the students.
Page 2 of 3 - “We’re very, very fortunate to have had this long-standing tradition of sponsorship here. I can tell you my colleagues at other places are very jealous that we have this great sponsorship here. Unfortunately, it’s not something that’s easily replicated at other places.”
The program encourages sponsors to meet their international students at the airport when they first arrive in the United States because that first greeting is so important, Fain said. The sponsors help the families get settled and acclimated to life in the United States, which may include helping them with basics like getting a driver’s license or bank account.
“Then after that we ask the sponsors to at least once a quarter try to do something with their student,” he said. “That could be something as simple as just meeting together and having lunch.”
Or it could be inviting them to see their son play in his little league game. Or see their granddaughter play at a piano recital at church.
“Some of them do much more,” Fain said. “Some of them become like extended family.”
There are also sponsor-appreciation events, like food fairs each spring and fall, a holiday dinner dance and an event near graduation that recognizes years of service. An “ice breaker” event at the beginning of each class provides an opportunity for all of the sponsors to meet with their international families and plan the year.
The program provides insight for international students and sponsors into cultures that they wouldn’t otherwise have, Fain said, noting that an added bonus is that many become lifelong friends. Social media like Facebook provide a way to stay connected.
Fery Susanti, of Indonesia, and her husband, Maj. Bangkit Susanti, and their 3-year-old son Arya Dhimas Widodo, have enjoyed the fellowship offered by their civilian sponsors — Daniel and Rosemary Karp of Kansas City, and Margaret Long of Leavenworth — since they arrived on Jan. 20.
“They are very helpful,” Susanti said. “They are so open and warm, and I have had a wonderful time here. They are like my parents.”
Retired Lt. Col. Rich and Laurie Holden of Lansing have sponsored international students for 11 years from 17 different countries. They said they love the program because of the cultural awareness and appreciation it gives their children, Matt, 15, and Katrin, 13.
“It’s just seeing the world through different people’s eyes,” Laurie Holden said, noting that the family is currently sponsoring students from four countries: Germany, Pakistan, Turkey and Oman. “We love it. We invite them to things we would already want to do. We bring them to high school football games. It’s about learning the American culture for them. We include them as part of our family.”
Page 3 of 3 - Lt. Col. Kim Frerichs is their German student. He said he and his wife, Birte, appreciate the Holdens’ hospitality and do feel part of the family.
“They have helped us integrate in the American way of life,” he said.
For information on how to become a sponsor, contact Mike Brettmann at michael.j .email@example.com at Fort Leavenworth, Maxine Hunter at firstname.lastname@example.org in Leavenworth or Betty Olberding at email@example.com in Kansas City.