Visiting Apg Students Find Homes Away From Home Aberdeen Program Brings Cultures Together

November 11, 1990|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

For some foreign men visiting Aberdeen Proving Ground, the idea of taking orders from a female boss is the hardest adjustment of all.

For other long-term students at the army school, it's simply missing Mom and Dad and the food back home.

To fill in the cultural gaps of these homesick visitors from all over the world, Aberdeen officials ask local families and businesses to volunteer as sponsors. The program is called International Student Company.

Wei-sen Yang, 33, is one of about 75 students enrolled in classes at Aberdeen. The toughest part for this visitor from Taiwan is knowing he has a first-born son he's never seen, born in August after he'd arrived in Maryland. But he's glad to be here, studying fire control -- one of 40 courses the students may take at Aberdeen -- and learning a new culture, Yang says.

"It is very crowded in Taiwan, and I am very surprised when I come here. It is very big, many countries. But people are kind. If you have some trouble, they will help you," he says.

The biggest help for him has been the Pegrams, an Edgewood family who've "adopted" many students from Taiwan and other countries.

Norma Pegram, 43, worked with a Baptist mission in Taiwan in the '70s and enjoyed the friends she made there. Now an education specialist at the Army Ordnance School, Pegram volunteered in 1982 when officials at Aberdeen asked for sponsors. She's also a single parent with a 4-year-old son from India whom she adopted when he was a baby.

Pegram is like a home base for Yang and many others, who go home and tell their friends to call her when they come to America. She and her parents, Clarence and Helen Pegram, who live nearby, host the students for Fourth of July and Thanksgiving dinners and invite them over for cookouts and croquet. This summer 13 foreign student came to one party.

The Pegrams get together with the students several times a month, taking them shopping or on trips to Harborplace or Fort McHenry in Baltimore.

They've supplied students with basic cooking equipment, and fixed cars and bicycles.

"It's a cultural exchange," says Pegram. "They'll cook the traditional Chinese New Year's for us with hundreds of these little Chinese dumplings.

Or they'll bring guitars and sing folk songs."

Says her father, "They're usually well-educated and very nice people.

They seek after knowledge; they're so self-disciplined. And it's stimulating to get first-hand information about other countries."

Many of the students "sort of adopted us" in return, Pegram says, sending wedding and baby pictures after they return home. One couple even asked Helen Pegram to name their child -- "a real honor in the Orient," Pegram says.

The visitors, ages 18 to mid-40s, take classes in subjects ranging from officer training to tank turret repair. They may be privates or lieutenant colonels, and they stay from three to 15 months, says Dotty Cooney, the International Informational Program Coordinator.

Those who come -- about 225 annually -- either have English training courses at home before they come to the United States, or they go to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas for three to nine months to become conversant in English.

Says Cooney, "They're homesick in more ways than one. They miss the family atmosphere, and they're dropped into a foreign culture." Most students don't have relatives in the states. Mail often takes nearly a month to arrive.

Families like the Pegrams make students' lives easier, says Cooney, who constantly looks for groups to sponsor students. One host program has teamed the Leacock Presbyterian Church in Paradise, Pa., with 30 students.

Church families invite the students for a weekend three times during the year.

Closer to home, the Aberdeen Baptist Church invites students to special church programs and pot luck suppers.

Calvary Baptist Church in Bel Air invites students for a church picnic every year. Last year, the Harford County Ambassadors, similar to the Chamber of Commerce, printed up certificates for the visitors, welcoming them as honorary citizens "who have journeyed to our shores." Michael Davall, the group's president, also raised money from the business community to take students on a boat ride. Aberdeen's Rotary Club plans to invite students to an International Night at local restaurants this year.

In addition to church and civic groups, Cooney says about a dozen individuals are sponsoring foreign students.

But with 75 students in residence at a time, more families are needed, she says, inviting interested parties to call her at 278-2431.

Says Pegram, "We get a whole fresh look at things we usually take for granted, like Turkish students who comment on our freedom to travel, or the way students respond almost reverently to the American flag. And you make friends."

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