Anna Safronova was a ninth grader when she became a finalist for the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program. The Ufa, Russia resident traveled to Rapid City, South Dakota and was immediately struck by the differences between the two cities.
“There are about one million people in Ufa,” says Anna. “I went to Rapid City in South Dakota where there is only 70,000 people. Our public transportation in Ufa is well developed so it is easy to go everywhere. But in Rapid City there were no buses and I walked. There are also drive-in banks and restaurants so we didn't have to get out of the car for hours.”
Anna eventually adjusted to her new city and was surprised by the amount of activities and volunteer hours she was able to complete during her stay.
“I completed more than 100 plus [community service] hours,” says Anna. “My high school is called Central High and had 2,000 kids. I took photography, tennis, and golf-- which is very unusual in Russia because it is very expensive. I participated in the election during election year. I shadowed a candidate for a senate seat and went to the voting stations and listened to him speak.”
“It’s just amazing to learn how the government works here. I was a legislative page for two weeks in the state legislature and that was something I never imagined. I learned about famous journalists who were doing investigative journalism. Kids in my journalism class were Republicans and Democrats and we had open discussions.”
Learning about American politics was important to Anna’s academics, but she believes the volunteer work she did while in the United States changed her heart forever.
“I volunteered at the Dahl Gallery in the city and kids who lived in foster homes would come and be with kids from family homes,” explains Anna. “This is not the same in Russia where orphans go to separate schools and don't get to interact a lot. When I returned to Russia we established a long term project called My Dream City and we organize workshops in orphanages in Ufa and Moscow every month.”
“These kids are expecting us to come every week and I see them benefitting from this. I can see the small results immediately but if they go to university I hope it will make them take bigger steps in the future.”
Anna believes the FLEX Program gave her the necessary tools to succeed in college, and in life.
“This program helps you build a better understanding of other people,” says Anna. “I became more tolerant to different religions and nationalities. At my high school we had 10 exchange students from all over. There are all these different religions and races and everyone lives in peace. It’s a great thing to see. My way of thinking became more positive. It was a great exchange of knowledge.”