FLEX Programme Takes Young Ukrainians to Live and Study in the US
For the last 15 years the Future Leaders Exchange programme (FLEX) has been sending students from all over the former Soviet UNI0N to live and study in America for a year. Since its inception in 1992, more than 14,000 students have participated in the programme. Every year, 300 young Ukrainians get the chance to live with an American family, study at an American high-school and experience first hand a different culture and way of life. As it is Education Day 1 September, we though it would be an ideal time to hear the first hand account of one of last year’s participants, Daryna Kulya, who in turn spoke with Andriy Shevchenko of BYuT, one of the programme’s most famous participants who took part in the very first year.
Since 1992 when FLEX was first launched by the US State Department, more than 4,000 young Ukrainians have been given the chance to live and Study in America for a year. For many, it is the opportunity of a lifetime, but with more than 12,000 students applying for the programme every year and only 300 places available the selection process is tough. Over a period of six months all the applicants, myself included, had to fill out questionnaires, write essays, pass three rounds of tests and attend interviews. It was very hard, but I was determined to take part in the programme so put everything I could into it. To assure fairness, the participants are selected by an independent committee in Washington DC, and it was a long anxious wait to find out if I had been successful.
I was overjoyed to find out I was one of the lucky ones who had been selected, and started preparing for the trip straight away. The list of participants was announced in April, and we were to depart in late August. During those months we received orientation training to prepare us for the year ahead which proved very beneficial because as I was not too worried about language problems having studied at the Kyiv School for English, I did have some concerns over the cultural differences I might come across. As the date for departure approached I experienced a strange mix of emotions – on the one hand I was very excited about the trip, but on the other I would be leaving my family behind and would not see them again for a year. This was brought home to me when my sister, with whom I was always fighting, burst into tears because I was leaving.
Those taking part in the programme are sent to different high schools all over America, and I was to attend Prosper High School in a small town near Dallas Texas. One of the main benefits of the exchange programme is that the students are hosted by American families during their stay and therefore get a true experience of real life in the country, which is far removed from the way life is portrayed in Hollywood movies. I was very nervous when it came to meeting my host family, but I needn’t have worried as they were so kind and loving towards me that I felt an integral part of their family right from the start. It was now that the orientation training came into effect, as it was this that made the culture shock less severe. I think if I had gone there expecting American life to be the same as it is portrayed on TV and in the movies then the transition would have taken longer, but as it was my adjustment to another culture was very smooth. I learned very quickly to enjoy what I had, and to get as much as I could from this fantastic opportunity I had been given.
Life at an American high school is very different from that here in Ukraine. While I was the only Ukrainian at the school, there were other exchange students there from Germany, Italy, Spain, South Korea and Yemen, and we were all made very welcome by the staff and students. One of the things I loved about my experience at Prosper High School was that the students are kept busy and interested in what they are learning. Having to hurry between classes, extracurricular activities, research projects and exciting events, I never had time to feel homesick. In fact, it was very surprising for me too see how active in sports and arts our American peers are. If you aren’t a football, basketball or water polo player, then you will be a musician in the school band, or a dancer or cheerleader. Being a proud member of my high school dance team was one of the best things about my whole experience. As a Master of Sports in rhythmic gymnastics in Ukraine, I had the chance to learn an American way of dancing and find out what team spirit is all about by going to different places every Friday to support the football team.
My American family and friends were with me throughout the year, and with their love and support I learned a whole different side to my character I never knew existed. When I arrived in the USA I was shy and indecisive, but by the end of the year I was more mature and confident. The trip to America has changed me more than I could ever imagine. I have maintained my traditional values, but have also learned to be more confident, creative and optimistic. Another important aspect of American life I learned during the year was that of community service, of giving something back to the society we live in.
Many young Ukrainians have participated in FLEX over the last 15 years, including the famous journalist and politician Andriy Shevchenko who took part in the programme in its very first year. Andriy has made an important contribution to the development of democratic values here in Ukraine following his participation in FLEX, and I met with him this week to discuss his experience in America and what he learned. He was only 17 when he went to the states, right after finishing school. It was the first year of the programme and no one really knew what to expect, but he found it was a very positive experience for the young man. “I think if you live in the 21st Century it is important to spend time in America if only to see what the world has been up to. It broadens your horizons,” Andriy explains.
Andriy had already chosen a career in journalism before leaving for America and had been accepted to Taras Shevchenko University and Kyiv Mohyla Academy where he started his further education upon his return, but he feels the lessons he learned in the US set him in good stead for this and the development of his future career. “My experience with FLEX made me much more mature and readied me for adult life. It taught me about freedom of choice and, more importantly, the personal responsibility we have to take for the choices we make. For instance, when you choose the subjects you want to study and the extracurricular activities you are going to take part in you have to make these choices yourself and then carry the responsibility for them. But by far the most important impact of my time in America was that is made me a real Ukrainian. It made me realise that I wanted to come home and do my best to make Ukraine successful and prosperous,” he says.
Ukraine is going through a difficult but positive transition, but as Andriy’s story demonstrates, this is a country with a talented and intelligent youth. The FLEX programme nurtures and develops these skills while giving one a sense of pride in ones own country. One thing my experience of America has taught me is that Ukraine is the country I love, and it has a bright and beautiful future.