Building Strong Ties Through Friendship

John and Chhunn pose for a photo. John and Chhunn pose for a photo. A “teacher at heart,” John Balsam has long been interested in hosting international visitors. Sharing his experiences with them and learning from them, he says, has given him a new perspective on the United States and the challenges it faces.

But with the Professional Fellows Economic Empowerment Program, John got all that and more. Through the University of Montana, John hosted an emerging leader with whom he also shared a love of business and entrepreneurship. Soon, he’ll visit Cambodia to see his fellow’s home country and learn from local industry leaders.

“These exchanges are highly educational in nature and U.S. citizens benefit by being exposed to alternative ways of thinking, believing, and living,” says John.

“I am interested in learning about the level of entrepreneurship in economic environments so different from ours. I have a strong desire to know whether [the knowledge I’ve accumulated] is applicable in cultures that are far different than America’s.” 

John enjoyed serving as a resource for his fellow and connected with him as both a colleague and friend. They spent their meals asking or answering each other’s questions, and understanding how their practices and solutions could be applied in the other’s country. That time, he says, was “when the true bonding occurred.”

Exposing his fellow to as many business environments as possible helped Balsam see the program’s potential to change lives. Understanding what’s important to each other not only helps create long-term friendships, but could unlock future professional partnerships as well.

“U.S. citizens with their eyes and ears open will quickly recognize that numerous aspects of their way of life are all too often not available to a large portion of the Earth's population,” says Balsam. “These exchanges reveal that [our approach] to problematic issues is not the only viable solution.”

“[We need to know] that business conducted in the U.S. is not necessarily the same as business conducted in other countries. “By helping us better understand what is important, we should be able to identify opportunities for new win/win relationships, both personal and commercial.”

Meanwhile, John believes that everyone should have the chance to travel abroad, and that American organizations should welcome exchange participants with open arms. He hopes his own trip will be just as rewarding as the time spent with his fellow.

“It’s one thing to host a foreign exchange participant and talk with them extensively about their country, but quite another to actually experience that other country in person,” he says. “It represents an opportunity to visit a country and region of the world that I would never have visited on my own.