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Airman LEAPs into translator role

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)

She grew up in Russia and moved to the United States when she was 16. Her mother was an English teacher; her grandmother was a German teacher and her step-father was an American.

She learned English at a young age and could speak it well, but she quickly realized there was a disconnect when talking to people. In the U.S., it was sometimes difficult to fit in during high school -- people made fun of the way she talked and her inability to understand American slang.

“When the teacher would take roll call I’d get embarrassed if I thought I said ‘here’ wrong with an accent that comes off differently,” said Master Sgt. Maria Hudgeons, the 22nd Comptroller Squadron finance flight chief. “The Air Force pushed me to get through it. I thought, am I going to hide and sit in a corner and never speak again because I think I mispronounce things, or am I going to say, ‘Yes I mispronounced it. I will learn, and I will do things better next time?’”

Hudgeons joined the Air Force after high school, and with patience and effort, the gap between language and culture was bridged. She realized that fully understanding a language went beyond pen and paper and involved integration into a culture, a parallel she drew from her experiences and that of her parents.

“[Language] gives you a tool to know not only the culture of your country, but the culture of humanity,” said Larissa Van Dyke, Hudgeons’s mother. “Being Russian, living in the closed society of communist Russia, I appreciated the opportunity to know the world and receive information. That is why I studied English myself and began to teach it to my daughter.”

Hudgeons now follows in her mother’s footsteps, using her language skills as an Air Force asset through the Language Enabled Airman Program.

According to the Air Force Culture and Language Center, LEAP uses developmental classes to build upon the abilities of Airmen who speak multiple languages and are familiar with the culture. This enables Airmen to be strategic cultural representatives for the Air Force during missions, TDYs or deployments.

Hudgeons had the opportunities to use her skills in outreach programs for the Air Force. In 2009, she was assigned to a TDY location in Kyrgyzstan as a coalition coordinator, and in 2014 she deployed to Mongolia where she used her language skills to help doctors translate medications for patients.

“I had to translate stuff between Mongolian colonels who spoke Mongolian and Russian, and Chinese colonels who were on the team of doctors who spoke Chinese and English,” Hudgeons said. “You have to switch off between one language and the next. It made me realize how translating can be really hard. Knowing your language, knowing your culture, knowing how to carry yourself and altogether translating those little nuances of how people actually come off is difficult.”

Hudgeons expressed that cultural miscommunication can be difficult, especially in important situations such as the one she was in, but combating it required self-reflection and practice. Through LEAP, Hudgeons is sharpening her technical abilities through eMentoring, which also allows her to integrate her language skills into her Air Force specialty.

“The school that I go through is with an instructor where we speak only Russian, and I have to do a presentation on the budget, which is not in your day-to-day vocabulary,” Hudgeons said. “Any translation is difficult, because not only are you translating the basic words, but you have to get the tone of the message correctly.”

Hudgeons emphasized the training not only helps prepare her for Air Force translating missions, but it also serves a more important role in understanding people and culture on a global level. Because of this understanding, Hudgeons has become a heavy advocate for LEAP and encourages Airmen with language skills to be a part of it.

“It’s an awesome program,” Hudgeons said. “You learn more things, you get the opportunity to go TDY outside of your career field, and you get to see more things that you would normally not see. Knowing another language -- you know what matters to people. It helps you approach them and have a better rapport overall because you respect each other.”