Gamal, a stocky, good-humored Egyptian, sits down to lunch in the campus cafeteria. He joins John, a black minister of economic affairs from Cameroon; Mario, a tall, bearded anthropologist from Colombia; and Katie, an American who served in Africa with the Peace Corps. Interest in the mashed potatoes takes a back seat to a discussion of what it means to be a ''friend'' in different cultures.
This kind of informal search for cross-cultural understanding is an important facet of the master's program in intercultural management offered at the School for International Training here on a hillside near Brattleboro, Vt.
''In my country,'' says Gamal, ''if a friend asks you to do something, you drop everything and go with your friend.'' Gamal and his American wife met while working for the YMCA in the United States, and plan to move to Egypt after their course is completed to work, as they explained, ''for peace and understanding through the international YMCA in Egypt.''
John has been in America only a few weeks, yet speaks excellent English. The son of a chief, John is expected to bring home to his people skills in management. Like all 35 students enrolled in this master's program, he must formulate his own goals, research information, and plan, under careful supervision, his personal study program. ''I am getting what I need,'' John comments, flashing a bright smile.
The lunchroom becomes a microcosm of a world community as students file in from the various programs of the school. About 225 students are on campus, from nearly 50 countries. The ratio of foreign students to Americans is high, sometimes 40 percent.
The programs reflect the goals and values of the school's parent organization , the Experiment in International Living, now over 50 years old, and abide by its motto: ''Learn to live together by living together.''
With this intercultural community as a base, management students have a training ground in which to practice cross-cultural communication skills. After six months on campus, they take their learning overseas (or at least to a foreign culture) for a six-month internship. There they work for an organization , sometimes paid, sometimes for room and board only. The final six weeks on campus are used for evaluation.
Most of the students are in their 20s or 30s and already have several years of experience in a culture other than their own.
''I would like to write a textbook on cross-cultural education,'' says Katie, who has already set up her internship in India for next February.
Mario worked as an anthropologist in Colombia and learned that native cultures are being wiped out by outside forces. He is gaining skills and a degree in management in order to return home and set up programs to reverse this trend. He would like to see more third-world people at the school, particularly the poor people, but he explains they cannot afford to come.
Recent graduates have gone to jobs in a variety of international organizations: assistant director, Foster Parents Plan International, Sierre Leone; field representative, CARE, Egypt; director of field operations, International Eye Foundation, Kenya.
Some work in the US: one as program director for the National Endowment for the Arts; another is a career development officer in North Carolina.
One word that keeps coming up in conversation is ''vision.'' Program Director Carolyn Mayo-Brown says, ''We are building vision in our students. They hope to have some positive impact in the world.''
She says that the school takes seriously its role in developing the ''soft skills of human communication'' as much as it teaches the ''hard skills'' of management, such as grant writing or budgeting.
Dr. Richard Hopkins, director of the School for International Training, mentions that there is less grant money available today for human service.
''The world is not tilting in altruistic and humanistic directions,'' he remarks. ''Our graduates struggle with the question of how to make a living and still feel good about themselves.''
Nevertheless, Dr. Hopkins says about 90 percent of the program's graduates find work in the intercultural management field. His statement is backed up by a United States Agency for International Development (AID) report in 1978. The report states:
''First, they have a considerable number of well-trained and experienced American and host country micro-developers who have been extensively trained in cultural sensitivity . . . foreign language competence, and have a set of specific skills fashioned for small scale development requirements. . . . A surprising number of these micro-developers appear to be coming from one institution, the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vt.''
Other institutions offering master's degrees in international management:
* American Graduate School of International Management, known as ''Thunderbird'' because of its location on a World War II pilot-training field in Glendale, Ariz. The school started in 1946 and now has a student body of 950, a quarter of whom are from foreign countries. Exchange possibilities with graduate schools in Japan, Spain, Egypt, England, and the People's Republic of China are offered. Emphasis is on international business careers.
* Monterey Institute of International Studies, Monterey, Calif. offers master's degrees in language, education, international management, and the only master's degree in translation and interpretation.
* Lesley College, Cambridge, Mass., opened this fall a Master's Degree Program for Professionals in International Education and Service. The first class of seven students started in September with a semester at Lesley, to be followed by an internship abroad and a final semester at Lesley.