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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Program Marks a Decade of Foreign Exchange

For MTFuture Leaders Exchange alumni gathering last week in Kiev, Ukraine, for a ceremony celebrating the program's 10th anniversary.
When Karina Chupina returned to St. Petersburg after a year studying in an American high school, she decided to change the lives of disabled people in her native city.

Today, Chupina is vice president and project coordinator at the International Federation for Young People with Hearing Deficiencies, an organization that helps disabled people integrate into mainstream society.

Chupina is a graduate of the U.S. government-funded Future Leaders Exchange, or FLEX, program for secondary school students. The organization places students of the former Soviet Union in American high schools and with American host families. They study for a school year before returning home, their eyes widened to the larger world.

Former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, who co-sponsored legislation that helped found FLEX in 1992, said the idea for the program came from his wife, who told him about the massive exchange programs that Germany and France inaugurated for young people after World War II.

"My thought was, 'Why not establish a similar program between young people within the Soviet Union and the U.S.?'" Bradley said.

To qualify for the program, an applicant must speak fluent English and have grades of only "good" and "excellent." The competition is rigorous: Of about 500,000 students that applied over the past 12 years, fewer than 14,000 were accepted.

This year, 1,367 students from 12 former Soviet republics are participating in the program. About 350 of them come from Russia. Since the program was launched, more than 5,000 Russian students have participated.

For 10 years now, program alumni have been exporting American values and culture to their homelands.

"When I was in the U.S., I was really impressed with the way the problem of disabled people is seen there," Chupina said. "I learned a lot about what Americans call self-awareness."

When Chupina was awarded two grants from the Fund of Assistance to Disabled Children and Youth in 2001 and 2002, she launched a number of programs for the disabled in St. Petersburg, from rehabilitation courses to art exhibitions.

Lisa Choate, vice president and director of programs for the American Councils for International Education, said the impact that FLEX alumni have on their communities when they return home is mostly in the social and political spheres.

Graduate Elena Shchitova launched a women's movement in her native Siberian town of Barnaul. An alumnus from Kyrgyzstan is currently trying to raise academic integrity in his region by preventing students from paying bribes to university professors.

"Many of our alumni in Kyrgyzstan are involved in an academic testing program to work through how students enter university and to make that system more transparent," Choate said. "That's one of the big impacts."

Choate said the FLEX program hasn't focused on large cities, but rural areas. And while many alumni returning home join already existing movements, many start their own.

One program participant from Azerbaijan has launched an initiative to raise voter turnout in his increasingly autocratic state.

"These students are exposed to democracy firsthand," said Christina Pendzola-Vitovych, who runs the FLEX office in Kiev. "When they come back to their countries, they become very active in their societies."

Choate said the impact of their efforts is felt on many levels.

"Our alumni have also done work for community service and as volunteers working with older people, working with people who are otherwise forgotten," Choate said.

The export of culture isn't a one-way street. Pendzola-Vitovych said that hosting foreign students has widened horizons for many American families.

"They don't see things from only an American perspective anymore," she said. "They begin to understand some of the concerns that other countries have, as well."

For the students in the program, culture shock is the most common problem.

Students from large cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg find little to do in small American towns. After a while some get adapted and spend time, for instance, cooking for their host families. Still others never acclimate: Choate said about four percent of students return home after failing to overcome homesickness.

Aside from the concrete accomplishments of FLEX alumni, former Senator Bradley said the long-term goal of the program was an investment in the human spirit.

"The program will be a success even if no graduate assumes leadership of their country," he said. "But, of course, I expect them all to do that."