KONGKOI CAMP, Malaysia -- While some college students enjoyed their summer break by taking vacations, cadets and midshipmen from the U.S. Military Academy, U.S. Air Force Academy and U.S. Naval Academy traveled to Malaysia for a student leadership exchange at the National Defense University-Malaysia from July 20-28.
For the first time in history, the NDUM Centre for Leadership and Professional Development hosted six cadets and midshipmen from all three U.S. service academies during the exchange.
"This trip has made me understand how to interact with people that don't come from the same background as me or speak a different language," said West Point Class of 2021 Cadet Cassidy Braggs.
U.S. cadets and midshipmen were partnered with a Malaysian cadet during the one-week exchange to immerse them into the Malaysian culture and give them first-hand experience of what it is like to be a cadet attending NDUM.
"I've learned a lot of leadership techniques that I would have never been exposed to if I hadn't come on this trip and that started at West Point," said USAFA Class of 2020 Cadet Ben Thompson. "When we got to NDUM the Malaysian hosts did an excellent job of showing us the ropes here and how to properly use customs and courtesies. They always took care of us and made sure we had everything we needed. To me, that's what makes a really good leader."
During the first day of the exchange, cadets and midshipmen had the opportunity to share ideas with NDUM Vice Chancellor, Lt. Gen. Dato' Abdul Halim bin Haji Jalal, and Commandant of the Military Training Academy Brig. Gen. Dato' Haji Shaharuddin Bin Mansor.
Throughout the week, cadets and midshipmen learned more about the culture at NDUM by touring the facilities and participating in various physical training sessions with their Malaysian counterparts.
"Our main goal, especially for our cadets, is to expose them to other military institutions and for them to extend their views with their counterparts and learn how they conduct training, especially on leadership," said Lt. Col. Khairul Hasni bin Kamarudin, Deputy Director for the Centre for leadership and Professional Development at NDUM.
The cadets and midshipmen said one of the most memorable experiences was the jungle training at Kongkoi Survival Camp. Some of the survival training included learning how to identify edible tropical jungle plants, setting up animal traps, and how to build a fire.
For USNA Class of 2021 Midshipmen Mark Humes, going through the jungle training meant stepping outside of his comfort zone.
"We handled a lot of reptiles, and I am not the biggest fan of frogs or snakes," said Humes.
After getting over their fears of reptiles, cadets and midshipmen navigated the jungle during the day and again at night.
"My favorite part of jungle training was the night training because I couldn't see anything," said Humes. "You had to trust the person in front of you and follow their path, or you could fall."
At the end of the exchange, NDUM cadets gave a presentation about their academy, and then U.S. cadets and midshipmen gave presentations about their academies.
"I learned we are more similar than people may think," said Braggs. "Our daily schedules are pretty much the same, especially attending the academies."
Although there were some similarities in their rigorous schedules, NDUM differed by training officers in the Malaysia Army, Air Force and Navy all within the same institution. Once NDUM cadets graduated they will move on to their respective service training and become inducted into the Malaysian armed forces.
Alongside Malaysian cadets, civilians also attend NDUM to earn their bachelor's degrees. Civilian graduates will commission into the Malaysian reserve armed forces and continue their careers in government and non-government sectors.
"Malaysia is a leader within the Indo-Pacific region and shares many common interests with the United States," said Morgan O'Brien, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. "People-to-people exchanges like this one showcase how the U.S. values our partnership with Malaysia to promote regional security, education opportunities, innovation and economic engagement."
Since 1971, 30 Malaysians have graduated from U.S. service academies. Currently, Malaysia has nine cadets attending the service academies with three each at the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Air Force Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy.
Not only was this an eye-opening experience about Malaysia, but this was also an opportunity for U.S cadets and midshipmen to learn about each other and make new friends.
"Even though we have that rivalry, we still have a brother-sister relationship," said Humes. "I've never known these people before, and we are already talking about meeting up at graduation. It's only been a week, but I love them all like my brothers and sisters."