What Is the FLEX Program?


SEATTLE — The first years of the 1990s were a time of revolution and change in the ex-Soviet nations of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. The end of the Cold War left many newly independent countries looking to the West with a combination of mistrust and curiosity. Previous generations looked at the United States as a former adversary or with envy, while others only wanted to get on with their lives. 

Seeing an opportunity to create a cultural exchange between the former Eastern Bloc countries and the United States, the 102nd Congress of the United States passed the Freedom Support Act in 1992. Its goal was to help these nations come into the fold of Western democracy. In support of this new goal, the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) Program was created, sponsored by former senator Bill BradleyThe goal of the FLEX Program is the same as its Congressional counterpart, but focuses on students in secondary school.

Requirements of the FLEX Program

Funded by the U.S State Department, the FLEX Program allows eligible students from 15 ex-Soviet republics and Eastern Bloc countries to attend high school in the United States. These countries include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Serbia and Montenegro were added in 2015 through the merger of the A-SMYLE Program and the FLEX Program.

The FLEX Program accepts applications on a yearly basis. According to its website, the program receives more than 30,000 applications each year but is only able to accept approximately 800 students. The American Councils for International Education is the liaison for the FLEX Program in each country. They also provide support for prospective students.

Due to varying levels of education funding in the 17 participating countries, each country sets its own requirements for prospective students. The most important difference is the English requirement. The United States Embassy website for Estonia states that a student must have studied English in secondary school. According to the Estonia Ministry of Education and Research, Estonia students traditionally learn two foreign languages up to a B class level. The requirements for Kyrgyzstan state that a student applying to the FLEX Program from Kyrgyzstan must only “be able to speak English well”, as English education in Kyrgyzstan is much less readily available than in Estonia.

Student Experiences

Transportation to the United States is paid for by the FLEX Program scholarship, along with other miscellaneous fees. This is to ensure that students, no matter what socioeconomic level they are from, have a fair start in the program. The students accepted to the FLEX Program arrive in the United States in the summer for training and acclimation before their academic year begins.

For the majority of the time they are in the United States, the students live with a host family. All host families are volunteers. Oftentimes, these families become second families to the exchange students. Staying with an American family while attending American high school helps the student gain an unprecedented understanding of American culture.

As the name states, it is important that while in the United States, these students gain leadership experience. Students are encouraged to seek out leadership roles and participate in sports or other clubs at their high school. They are also encouraged to seek out ways to participate in their new communities.

There are testaments to the success of these students on the FLEX Program website. Typically, they tell of how they gained a better understanding of American culture through the exchange. One exchange student from Russia talked about how he constantly learned new things about the United States, even after he thought he had learned it all. Most importantly, he thought the friendships he gained through the experience would make their countries grow closer.

Promoting Two-Way Cultural Exchange

While the cultural exchange is supposed to flow in both directions, it is much easier for exchange students to learn about American culture than for the host families, friends, fellow students, or communities to learn about their own. However, the FLEX Program encourages exchange students to host a cultural exchange week. During this time, the exchange students often dress in traditional garb from their home country, teach their classmates or host families traditional songs and dances or talk about the customs of their home countries.

Many of these program participants have gone on to be leaders in their countries in many different fields. One woman from Georgia, Nino Zurabishvili, an alumna from 1996, became Deputy Chief of the City Council of Gori, a city in Georgia. Her daughter went on to participate in the FLEX Program herself. Since its inception, the FLEX Program has supported over 26,000 student scholarships. This is a lot of goodwill that has a proven ability to grow. Hopefully, in the coming years, we will see more cultural bridges crossed and closer ties based on the goodwill of the FLEX Program.

– Nick DeMarco

Photo: Flickr


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