Facilitator's Guide to SpICE

And Program Overview

by Mr. Robert J. Hoffer

Their most lasting memory of the USA could be YOU!


The very popular and highly successful Spouse’s International Cultural Exchange Program (the SpICE Program – formerly known as the English Conversation Group) was born out of a wonderful combination of necessity and opportunity during the National Defense University (NDU) 1999 / 2000 school year. Over the years, we have built a proud tradition of providing a venue where people from very different backgrounds can come together, make friends, have fun, support one another, and make it a memorable year. The return on this investment of time, energy, effort and real work has been substantial.

The SpICE Program is a loose-knit, all-volunteer organization that allows the spouses and families of the International Officers enrolled at NDU the opportunity for social interaction with each other and with a small group of “facilitators” in a supportive, non-threatening environment. The program affords people from diverse backgrounds the chance to learn from and about one another through general conversation, various team building exercises and other types of cultural exchange. This two-way conduit of open communication is based on mutual respect, honesty, trust, and friendship.

Prior to the establishment of the SpICE Program, there were very few organized activities for the families of the International Officers once they were settled in-country. This left the spouses far away from home, separated from their family and friends, and learning about life in America by watching daytime TV. A bored, lonely and unhappy spouse is not a good thing – in any culture.

The building blocks for the solution to this problem are already in place. We are surrounded by the top people from around the world; outside the idyllic setting of Fort McNair lies Washington DC, one of the most exciting cities on the planet. Putting all of this together through the SpICE Program empowers people to get involved, enjoy themselves, and make the most of their time.

The SpICE Program is not an English as a second language (ESOL) class. For the families of the International Officers, the SpICE Program provides a safe and comfortable environment where they can practice and polish their American-English language skills, while forming a true and positive impression about the United States. For Americans, it is an opportunity to see their country through new eyes. All participants have the chance to learn about one another’s countries, cultures, customs, families, dress, foods, holiday traditions, and so forth. This kind of educational interaction opens doors of communication, tears down walls of misunderstanding, and builds bridges of friendship.

Just Who Are These Guys Anyways?

The National Defense University is the top school of its kind in the world. The International Students are attending NDU at the invitation of the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff. They are invited to come to the United States along with their families to learn about America, “warts and all”. Just like the American Students, they are selected to come to NDU because they are the top performers who are being groomed for very high level positions. We can expect to read in the newspaper someday that one of them was named Chief of Staff of their armed forces or to some other top job within their government. In fact, it would not be surprising to learn that a member of the SpICE Program went on to become First Lady of her country.

Our Volunteer Facilitators

All SpICE Program facilitators are volunteers. They are recruited from the National War College Spouse Club (NWC-SC), the Eisenhower School Spouse Club (ES-SC), as well as NDU faculty and staff. Facilitators are expected to diplomatically discuss and answer questions on a wide range of subjects. Topics include, but are not limited to, questions on American English pronunciation, commonly used idioms and slang, as well as current events, holiday traditions, and the always complex and hard-to-explain “American lifestyle”.

Working as a facilitator is a very real commitment. The mental gymnastics that are sometimes involved can make participation an intellectually challenging as well as immensely rewarding undertaking. The SpICE Program is a lot of fun, a terrific way to make some interesting new friends and a great way to learn a little bit about yourself, your country and the world around you.

How The SpICE Program Is Organized

The SpICE Program has no president, secretary or any officers at all, nor do we follow Roberts Rules of Order to run the meetings. Using no titles or rank, all participants are equal. The group is all-inclusive and the meetings are run in a manner that allows everybody equal access to the floor. Cooking, eating, shopping, the weather, getting around town, tourist highlights, religious, secular, and family holiday traditions are all highly acceptable topics of conversation. As with any gathering of polite society, preaching religion and debating political differences are strongly discouraged. SpICE Program meetings are held on a weekly basis in an informal and collegial atmosphere. Sufficient notice will be given for special events, such as, guest speakers, offsite tours, and other exciting opportunities.

Why Does The SpICE Program Work?

A year in the NDU environment is a profoundly positive, life changing experience. The SpICE Program gives the participants the chance to get involved, play a part in, and take full advantage of the opportunities that are available in this supportive atmosphere of collegial interaction.

The SpICE Program is successful for three reasons. First and foremost is the support and participation of the spouses of NDU senior officers. They are the force multiplier that acts as a tremendous catalyst to make positive things happen. Second is the input, support and hard work of the facilitators who are an essential component to this success story. Facilitators join the group out of a sense of pride and patriotism as well as a desire to get involved. They also put a face on the term, “the Americans” that our friends from around the world can take back home with them. Third is the overwhelming acceptance of the SpICE Program by the international spouses. They enjoy taking advantage of the chance to represent their country, culture, heritage, and family while leaving a lasting positive impression on the top people from around the world. SpICE is the proverbial golden opportunity!

The Conversation Circle

Like many volunteer groups, the number of participants rises and falls from week to week depending on any number of outside influences. The key here is to go with the flow and make sure that whether it is five or fifty people in the “conversation circle,” each and every person feels welcome. No one needs to feel left out, unimportant or ignored. Allowing everyone an equal chance to speak freely, give their input, do their part and give their full measure is very important. The goal is to provide an open forum where everybody can make friends and have fun. To achieve this goal everyone must have a fair and equal chance to talk, chat, laugh, air opinions, share information, and exchange ideas.

Some of the participants may be more confident or have much stronger English language skills than others. This can sometimes lead to misconceptions, misunderstandings, or losing things in translation. This challenge can be overcome with a little work and a bit of patience. For example, a conversation circle may be made up of people representing five different countries. They will often hear heavily accented “school book English” which they sometimes must work hard to understand. The major stumbling block that an American could throw into the mix without even thinking about it, is the use of slang or idioms, the nuances of which can be extremely difficult to understand for a non-native English speaker.

Therefore, participants should try to speak as clearly and distinctly as possible. They may at times have to repeat or rephrase things or speak more slowly than normal in order to be understood. Over the course of the year, confidence will grow and most participants are astounded at how much easier dialogue becomes.

Trust and Sensititve Questions

Quite often, the participants will arrive before the official starting time of the meetings and they will stay after the day’s program is completed. This unstructured time is a good chance for a cup of coffee and some shared chit chat. As the participants get to know one another better, the questions and answers during these coffee klatch periods can became more probing. At one point or another, questions may arise on everything from A to Z. These might be on sensitive, controversial, personal, or hard to explain subjects. Questions like these are much more difficult to answer than the lighter fare that is most often presented in the large group situations. Probing questions may be difficult to tactfully answer, but they will surely lead to some of the more gratifying and interesting interactions. Sensitive questions are a sure sign of trust. The non-attribution rule is in effect and everybody understands that what we say here stays here.

A Lasting Impression

I sometimes wonder what it will be like for our friends when they return to their home countries. What impressions are they going to take with them? What is going to be their lasting memory of their time in the United States? What are they going to say to their best friend from back home when they are asked: “What is life really like in the United States?”

Their most lasting memory of the USA…

could be YOU!