The Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program is an exchange program for young citizens of Eurasia. Funded by the US Department of State, the program sends about 800 kids from Eastern Europe and Central Asia to the US for a year-long exchange with the goal of learning about the people and culture of the United States. The FLEX program affords kids from the former Soviet Union an amazing opportunity to study at a US high school and live with an American family; the kids who participate in this program develop incredible language and leadership skills. It’s rare for a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan to go 2 years without coming in contact with the FLEX program in some way.
A year in to my service, I’ve now watched the FLEX program make a full cycle.
Last summer, I prepped a handful of kids from Jalal-Abad to take the Round 1 test, which consists of 20 multiple-choice questions about English vocabulary and grammar. A handful of students from this group and some more who attended my English clubs passed onto Round 2; it was a challenge to teach students who lacked essay-writing skills in their native language how to write a 5-paragraph essay with a thesis statement and an argument. Two students made it to Round 3, the last round in the selection process, which involved an extensive English proficiency test and two interviews. Neither of my students made it as finalists, and I was there to console them and encourage them to try again next year.
Even though none of my students made it into the program, I was still excited to get an offer to work as a camp counselor at the FLEX pre-departure orientation (PDO). I was paired with an alumnus of the program, Azat, and we attended a training in Almaty, Kazakhstan with other volunteer-alum pairings from Kazakhstan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Kosovo to learn more about the program and how orientation works. Two months later, in late June, it was finally time for PDO!
45 kids piled into 4 marshrutkas and made the short trip to Kashka Suu, a ski resort less than an hour outside of Bishkek. The grounds of the camp were beautiful, and being so high up in the mountains meant an escape from the heat and mugginess definitive of a Bishkek summer. Over three days, the kids attended 12 sessions about the FLEX program rules, expectations, and goals; Azat and I taught 8 of those sessions, mostly the ones about American culture, like how an American high school functions and how to live with an American host family. My favorite session was the one about diversity – it was cool to connect American diversity with Kyrgyzstan’s, and I was proud of the students’ flexibility when it came time to discuss sexual orientation and race, two topics that are pretty taboo here.
While preparing for PDO, I had a lot of “lightbulb” moments about how bizarre American life can be. Some are silly (why do people walk in their houses with shoes on?); some are dark (how to reconcile these kids’ expectations that the US is a paragon of gender equality with the pay gap, lack of maternity leave, and the prevalence of sexual assault?); some left me speechless (will they, as openly practicing Muslims, be okay in small towns during a Trump presidential election?).
One of the main takeaways of the curriculum is that life in the US will be “not better, not worse, just different.” I was totally inspired by how quickly they latched on to this idea. These kids will be expected to attend Christian church services if their host parents request, to eat weird stuff like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and to field tough questions about their ethnicity and religion. And they are READY for these challenges.
Part of me wishes that I had come across this “not better, not worse, just different” mantra during training. I think it’s easy for Peace Corps volunteers to get carried away by the idea of Goal 2, sharing American culture with our host country neighbors, and forget that we’re the foreign ones who need to adapt and bend to local ways. These Kyrgyzstani kids aren’t coming to the US with an agenda to fix the low participation rates of women in politics or the neglect of elderly family members; they’re coming to watch and experience and grow. I can take a lesson from them on days when I’m frustrated or thrilled with something I see in Kyrgyzstan; next time, you bet I’ll be whispering “not better, not worse, just different” to myself.
2 PDOs later and I’m tired and never want to draw another flipchart poster again in my life, but I’m also thankful for the chance to experience PDO. I’m so lucky to have met these amazing young people who are going to have an amazing year in the US and do great things for their country in the future! Ак жол, счастливого пути, good luck and safe travels!