Russian Teens Vie for All-Expenses-Paid Trip to U.S.

Russian Teens Vie for All-Expenses-Paid Trip to U.S.

Published: November 16, 2011 (Issue # 1683)


Teenagers applying Sunday at a Moscow school to study under the FLEX program.

MOSCOW — A year from now, Pasha Kormiletsyn could find himself studying at an American high school, sitting around an American dinner table or playing American football in a town like Bozeman, Montana; Willis Point, Texas; or Morrisdale, Pennsylvania.

He might come back to Russia with a Southern drawl. Or a cowboy hat. But he would certainly return with a new perspective.

“It’s a chance to fundamentally change my life,” Pasha said as he joined about 800 other teens in a Moscow schoolhouse to participate in the application process for the U.S. government-funded FLEX program (Future Leaders Exchange), which began for Muscovites on Sunday.

About 240 teenagers from across the country will make the cut to spend a school year abroad, living with American host families, attending high school and participating in community life. The teens are an elite sample of the first post-Soviet generation, and the things they bring back could very well change Russia.

Over 7,300 Russians have graduated from FLEX, marking 20 years in Russia and the former Soviet Union next year, have brought their experience and language skills to leadership positions in business, government and elsewhere.

Over the next two years, The St. Petersburg Times will be following the selection process and later the winners as they settle into their new lives in America, cope with separation from home and analyze their experiences. We also will meet with alumni to see what impact they have made on their communities.

For Pasha and other applicants to the 2012-13 pool, the long journey started in school classrooms in 50 cities across Russia, where workers and volunteers from the American Councils for International Education, which operates FLEX on behalf of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs — first tested their basic knowledge of English.

On Sunday applicants from Moscow and nearby regions were ushered inside eager to begin the competition and find out how they measured up to “American” standards.

Last year, less than 2 percent of the 740 high school students who passed through this test center got a spot in the program. Harvard University’s acceptance rate is three times higher. And just like getting into an elite U.S. college, acceptance to FLEX is an inexact science, with organizers looking for a particular set of character traits.

“We select the ones we think will be most able to adapt to a new culture, be part of a host family and talk about their own culture,” said Matthew Mulherin, who oversees the selection process for the American Councils.

To get the scholarship, applicants must pass three rounds of testing. On Sunday, the applicants — 14 to 16 year olds — took a 15-minute, 16-question English comprehension test. A third of them will move on to the second round, a standardized English proficiency test and three written essays. Those who make it to the third round — semifinalists — will face two more essays, an interview and a formal application. The winners of the competition will be announced in early April.

“I’ll always remember getting that phone call,” said Ksenia Semyonova, a 2002 graduate. “I figured I wouldn’t get it because everything is corrupt in Russia.”

Mulherin said the program offers many students their first glimpse of a “major, high-integrity process,” meaning there’s no cheating and no currying favor. It’s pure merit, he said.

“America is a country of possibilities. America beckons,” said Yekaterina Volodicheva, waiting for her daughter Yelizaveta to finish the test. The two traveled 140 kilometers for Yelizaveta to take the test for a second year in a row.

Volodicheva said the chance to go to America had inspired her daughter to study Russian folklore and history to share with Americans. Part of the student exchange requires the Russian teens to prepare presentations in which they share their culture with their American classmates.

Like many parents, Volodicheva wasn’t thrilled about sending her daughter away for a year. “But how can you put a stick in the spokes of a child’s enthusiasm?” she said.

Applicants gave various reasons for trying out, such as language learning and cultural exposure. Yekaterina Berulava, 14, said she wanted her English to be as good as her brother’s, who is a program alumnus. Dasha Timerbayeva, 15, said she wanted to follow her boyfriend, a Russian-American, to the U.S. Some expressed a desire to leave Russia.

“I don’t like it here,” said Ksyusha Kuzmina, 14.

Others said they wanted to get out of Russia, “as fast as possible.”

But because the program is partly about building up an active alumni network in Russia, applicants looking to emigrate aren’t likely to get a ticket. In fact, alumni aren’t even allowed in the United States for two years after they return, though some will later study at U.S. colleges and universities on U.S. government programs.

From behind his desk, Volodya, the school’s security guard, watched students leave. “I would have gone to America when I was young,” he said. “Hell, I’d go now.”

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