FLEX (Future Leaders Exchange) program changed the lives of thousand students around the world. In 2013, one of those kids was me, a 16-year-old teenage girl from Russia.
What is FLEX?
The Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) Program provides scholarships for high school students from Europe and Eurasia to spend an academic year in the United States, living with a host family and attending an American high school. In Russia, A 20-year-old FLEX program has sent over 8,000 students to families in the US. In 2013 alone there were 14,000 applicants, of which only 238 were chosen to participate in the program. Even after completing a year overseas, your experience was not over. FLEX has an extended alumni community that brings kids together. Unfortunately, in 2014 Russia pulled out of the program. I was in the second to last generation.
My FLEX experience
l ended up going through all three rounds of the competition, and later being selected as one of those 238 students from Russia, who got to be exchange students in the US. I spent the 2013-2014 academic year in the United States of America, I lived the American Dream, and it was only the beginning.
FLEX students did not get to choose the host family or even a state they would go. I always joke that for some reason I did not want to live with senior citizens, and I did not want to be located in Texas. I got both, and I would not change a thing. Out of multiple applicants I was picked to be a host daughter for Loretta and Ed Williams, a retired couple from Texarkana, Texas. Every year they open their home and their hearts for two girls from anywhere in the world. Girls become a part of the family. I was lucky enough to share my experience with Outi, an extremely fascinating girl from Finland.
Texarkana was an average-size town on the border of Texas and Arkansas. Very good representation of life of southern hospitality. Fun fact: at some point, Texarkana was named one of the most dangerous cities in the US. I personally never considered it more dangerous than some of the areas of Chicago or Detroit. Anyways, Tk (as what locals call Texarkana) did not have much to do in it, so everything was happening around two biggest high schools, Texas High and Arkansas High, local businesses and restaurants. Since my host family lived on the TX side of the town, I attended T-high. In addition, that was the only school with a swim team on it. I have been a competitive swimmer for years and continuing training was a necessity for me throughout the year. Later one, our host parents, Ed and Loretta mentioned that swimming was the reason they chose me and Outi (consequences? I don’t think so), who was a swimmer as well. We were T-high Tigers Sharks.
Texas High School
Texas High was a typical American High school with lockers (that no one used), huge cafeterias, football team and classrooms with separate desks. I’ve always been adaptive, and it did not take me long to figure out how everything worked. I also followed my Moms advice: “When you don’t know how to do something, watch the way others do it”. Yes, “you have to be an individual” and “do things your own way”, but that advice helped me learned American culture and to “shrink” my cultural shock. Another thing I learned pretty quickly was “everything is bigger in Texas”: trucks, food portions, shopping malls, houses and so on.
Throughout my year in Tk, I took several “chill” and “figure out what you like” classes. For instance, I learned I was not interested in Theatre whatsoever, and I was much better in Art than I ever though. I attended school dances: Homecoming (in the fall, boys ask girls), Sadie Hawkins (in the spring, girls ask boys), and Prom (end of the year, seniors+ their dates); visited multiple cities (New Orleans was one of my favorite); tried food from all over the world; and won Regional Championship in swimming. What’s more important, in one year I learned about the country, culture, and people around me, and got to teach others about Russia.
Life after “FLEX”
The biggest though I got out of my experience was that America was and it still is the land of opportunities. Opportunities in education, professional development, and simply personal growth.
After coming back to Russia, I decided to try to attend a college in the US. I did not know my chances, I did not the way to do it, I had no clue what schools to look at. It took time, dedication and support from my family and a year after I was accepted to attend a 4-year American university on a full scholarship.
Today, I am a Senior student-athlete at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, which is only two hours away from Texarkana. In a few short months, I will be graduating with degrees in Marketing with a Certificate in Professional Sales and Business Analytics. I am interning with C.H. Robinson, a 3rd party logistics/supply chain management Fortune 200 company, and planning on moving into a full-time position afterward.
None of these would ever happen without FLEX program in my life and the experience I got during my exchange year. Up to today, I am forever grateful for an opportunity I have been given years ago by FLEX and I could not feel more blessed to still be a part of the family.