COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — There was no shortage of chatter in Spanish and no shortage of empanaditas at the Marriot. Guests in business casual attire gathered on the hotel’s first floor for a reception introducing international WHINSEC students and their local sponsors from PAIS.

The PAIS (Padrinos y Amigos of International Students) program works directly with Fort Moore’s international WHINSEC students and families by pairing them with sponsors, or padrinos. The sponsors will help the students and families, many of whom do not speak fluent English, adjust to life in the U.S. over the 47 weeks they will spend in the country as part of WHINSEC.

“Yes, they are here to learn Army doctrine… but getting to understand the culture and values of the U.S. and how democratic militaries function, I think, is essential,” said Col. Michael Rogowski, comandante of WHINSEC, at the reception.

He explained helping WHINSEC students and families integrate into U.S. culture and form reliable friendships is an important element of the program. Members of the 2023-2024 WHINSEC cohort include students from international militaries, as well as police forces. The students represent Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama and Peru.

“Part of why we’re here is to make sure that people have a good time and enjoy it and always remember it with fondness,” said Rogowski. “So that, at some point in the future, if we need to work together, we got a reliable partner and a reliable friend.”

PAIS Field Studies Coordinator Cecilia Alexander has been working with WHINSEC students for more than 20 years. She reported there were 27 students, with or without families, and 22 sponsors as part of the program this year. Some sponsors took on multiple international students.

“It’s a very rewarding program,” said Alexander, who once sponsored students but no longer does due to her executive role in the program. She continued, “You know, once they leave, the friendship does not end here.”

Alexander explained many students maintain contact with their sponsors via email or phone call. Some sponsors, she said, have even visited students in their home countries. When Alexander’s husband passed away a few years ago many of her WHINSEC students reached out to offer their condolences.

Lt. Col. Edwin Cogua of the Colombian army and his wife Natalia Gaona stated in Spanish they felt supported by the PAIS program and Fort Moore. Gaona explained she was grateful for her husband’s career opportunity and the ability to make connections in the community as a family.

Cristina Richards, has been a PAIS sponsor for over 20 years and is working with Cogua and Gaona this year. She is originally from Panama and came to the U.S. for her husband’s military career.

Richards said it is important to make sure locals know about PAIS. She hopes greater awareness will help make it easier for WHINSEC students and families to integrate in the Columbus community.