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When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Kush Sutaria, a J-1 intern student, was on a sales call in San Antonio, fortunately out of the fury of the storm’s eye.  As it turns out, being in San Antonio proved fortuitous in other ways. Kush was exactly in the right place to be able to assist FEMA and U.S. military with hurricane disaster relief efforts.

Kush spent the summer interning at United Aerial, a drone data collection and management company based in Houston, Texas.  Kush attributes his academic background and the fact that he has a private pilot’s license as being important reasons he was asked to join the company.  The boutique company offers highly-specialized technology and has a very unique culture. Kush’s enthusiasm and education made him a great addition to the team.  Kush’s background also made it easy for him to obtain a remote pilot’s certificate for drones.  It was a skill that proved invaluable in the very real disaster scenario he encountered.

When Kush and his teammates set out for a sales call San Antonio, they had no idea that Harvey would come so swiftly and destructively.  The logistics company that they were visiting in San Antonio is a FEMA contractor, so when Harvey hit, the company was enlisted into action.  Kush and his team members immediately volunteered to assist.

The United Aerial team spent all night logging the inventory of relief supplies arriving at a nearby Texas Air Force base.   While at the military base, Kush also demonstrated to military personnel how drones can be deployed to gather data in times of natural disasters. In this case, Kush sent a drone to video flood damage. The footage proved extremely helpful to the military relief efforts.

Kush is quick to point out that his part in helping with relief efforts was “minor” compared to “the real heroics” that took place in Houston.  He commends the people and organizations that conducted dangerous rescue operations, such as pulling people from treacherous flood waters. But he was also extremely pleased to help, and won’t ever forget the unexpected experience and lessons.

The experience made Kush even more interested in drone technology and taught Kush a lot about the great American spirit of courage, camaraderie and compassion.  Kush witnessed people coming together, literally lifting each other out of flooding streets and joining forces to rebuild a ravaged city. It left an indelible impression that he won’t forget.

One of the purposes of cultural exchange programs is to introduce international students and young professionals to American culture.  While Kush found Texas cuisine “fantastic,” and is in awe of the vastness and diversity of the “Lone Star State,” (that he says is larger than his entire country of England), he was most impressed by “Southern hospitality” and the friendliness of the people.

Like many visitor exchange participants, Kush was able to enhance his education through the work experience. The internship exposed him to important and integrated aspects of running a business. Beyond enhancing his technical understanding, he learned about the business, finance, marketing and customer service sides of the company, giving him tremendous overall business insights.

Kush feels that the three months he spent in the U.S. helped him become far more independent and greatly broadened his horizons.  He also feels he gained a greater understanding of American people and culture.  Kush would like to return to the U.S. after he completes his studies.

Kush’s story is one of thousands that underscore the reciprocal benefits of cultural exchange programs. It is through the people-to-people connections that common ground for establishing understanding, respect and friendships is found.

This is not merely an example of hand-to hand diplomacy in action; this is a heartwarming story of human beings coming together to lend a helping hand.

And that is the true power and real purpose of people-to-people programs.