On Thursday June 5th, the Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX) celebrated the end of its 21st year. Approximately 168 students of this year’s 800 scholarship recipients, traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in the closing ceremonies.
In the morning, the group visited the Department of State to engage in a candid and mutually enlightening discussion with Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Richard Stengel. The students spoke positively about their experience over the past year and their desire to become leaders when they return home. “I’m going [home] and I’m changing something and I’m sharing what I learned here”, said Maria Severin of Moldova. To encourage such leadership, Undersecretary Stengel shared Mandela’s perspective that being a leader simply requires a willingness to lead.
In the afternoon, they attended a closing reception on Capitol Hill where former Senator Bill Bradley first introduced the Freedom Support Act that initiated the FLEX program in 1993. It was Bradley’s conviction to achieving true democracy in the former Soviet Union that provided the foundation for the program. Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, Evan Ryan, acknowledged the significance of the location and its long-term impact in her remarks. “Here we are 21 years later and over 23,000 alumni stronger and still going. Great ideas last and your FLEX experience will last long after you’ve gone home.”
FLEX students are high school age youth selected from countries in Eurasia. They live with a host family in the United States for one academic year during which they attend school and participate in community service projects. Since the program’s inception, FLEX students have performed more than one million hours of community service in the U.S. alone. “I’ve done over 200 hours of community service,” Riyad Zeynalov of Azerbaijan proudly stated, “My volunteer coordinator nominated me for the President’s volunteer service award and I received a letter from Barack Obama.”
In addition to classroom and community activities, the students participate in International Education Week (IEW) where they give presentations on their countries or perform activities from their own culture for others. “I wasn’t honestly expecting this big interest coming from other people towards me and my country so it was surprising for me”, said Mariami Bliadze of Georgia. Overall, the students agreed the exchange year broadened their perspective of the United States as well as their knowledge of American society and values. Melano Durmishidze of Georgia summarized her experience stating, “It is amazing how a country that is so foreign to you becomes such an integral part of you later.”
Learn more about the FLEX program here.