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Capt. James Snyder, at far left, and the 2016 Olmsted cadets visit the Panama Canal.

Capt. James Snyder, at far left, and the 2016 Olmsted cadets visit the Panama Canal.
Capt. James Snyder, at far left, and the 2016 Olmsted cadets visit the Panama Canal.

In May, Virginia Tech senior cadets and Olmsted Foundation Undergraduate Scholars represented the Corps of Cadets, the university, and the nation well as they completed activities in Panama, including tours of the capital city and commerce port city of Colon.

Participants were cadets Beth Demyanovich (Air Force), John Hawley (Air Force), Sean Kelly (Air Force), Colleen McGovern (Navy), Casey Reynolds (Air Force), and Ellice Sisson (Army).

In addition to the city tours, cadets visited the Panama Canal, a tropical jungle area and native community, and the San Blas Island natural habitat area. They completed three community service projects and attended a country brief with U.S. Ambassador to Panama John D. Feeley. They attended Memorial Day ceremonies at the U.S. National Cemetery at Corozal in the former Canal Zone and had another opportunity to speak with Feeley after the formal events.

The George and Carol Olmsted Foundation, headquartered in Falls Church, Virginia, has long supported educational programs that give active-duty military officers and more recently cadets and midshipmen at Title X senior military colleges a better understanding of foreign cultures. 

The 2016 Olmsted cadets visit MUCEC, a women’s shelter and primary school for underprivileged children, in Colon, Panama, where they worked to clean up the facilities and interacted with children.

The  cadets pose for a group picture .
The 2016 Olmsted cadets visit MUCEC, a women’s shelter and primary school for underprivileged children, in Colon, Panama, where they worked to clean up the facilities and interacted with children.

While assigned to China during World War II, Gen. George Olmsted interacted extensively with both Chinese and Japanese officials and discovered that American military leaders lacked exposure and sensitivity to foreign cultures. That experience, coupled with a lifelong dedication to U.S. security, led him to establish the Olmsted Foundation to execute foreign resident-study programs for commissioned officers.

In fall 2004, the Olmsted Foundation board of directors established the Olmsted Cadet Travel and Cultural Immersion Program to enable “academically and socially qualified commission-tracked ROTC Cadets” at each of the senior military colleges, including Virginia Tech, to travel to non-English-speaking nations. The program helps prepare future military officers for international assignments and strengthens our nation’s ability to function efficiently and effectively in and with foreign countries.

The foundation provided the Corps an initial $10,000 grant in 2005, and three rising seniors traveled to Rio de Janeiro for two weeks that summer. Since then, recognizing the Corps’ efforts to optimize cadet participation by its aggressive liaison with U.S. embassies, the foundation has awarded grants ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 to support cadet travel to Santiago, Chile; Buenos Aries, Argentina; and Panama City, Panama.

Although no grants were distributed in 2010 because of the economic downturn, the foundation resumed grants in 2011 and 2012. Because of the Corps’ robust trips in previous years, VMI requested to join our efforts for the 2011 and 2012 trips to Panama, sending four cadets to accompany Virginia Tech cadets on their travel.

In 2013, the foundation expanded its undergraduate scholar program to include two historically black colleges — Hampton University and Norfolk State University — that sought the Corps’ assistance to launch their first cultural immersion trips. Two cadets in Army ROTC from both institutions joined the Virginia Tech contingent for the 2013 and 2014 travel to Panama. In 2015 and this year, two cadets from Norfolk State University Army ROTC accompanied the Virginia Tech group.

In her reflection of this year’s experience, Reynolds wrote: “The day we visited Sister Barbara in Colon at a refuge for women victims of domestic violence and day school for underprivileged children made me realize how lucky I am to be where I am today. It really broke my heart to learn that some of these kids in the poorer communities will never know anything else. They live in terrible living conditions with no running water or bathroom facilities. We take so many things for granted here in the United States, and, meanwhile, they are not given the opportunities to grow, so they simply stick to what they’ve known all their life. It makes me realize just how lucky I am that I live in the United States and that I am given various opportunities to grow. I think everyone needs to experience something like this in their lifetime so that they realize how lucky they are to be a citizen of the United States.”

McGovern added “The most impactful day in Panama for me was when we traveled to the very impoverished city of Colon. It was a very emotional trip for me. I can remember almost every detail about our walk around the block: The kids sitting down dividing up money amongst themselves; the smell of the unclean air; the polluted standing water in the streets; and the look of pure happiness in the eyes of every person as Sister Barbara walked down the street. She brought safety and solace to a needy community and bravely walks down the streets hugging every child and shaking every woman’s hand.”

Hawley shared this about his travels: “One of the most interesting parts of the trip for me was our meeting with the U.S. ambassador to Panama, Ambassador John Feeley. He talked about statecraft and American ‘soft power’ in the country with the insight that foreign relations are just a bigger version of personal relationships. This brought the culture that we had observed into perspective from a global leader.”