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Russians Voice Ire As Moscow Halts U.S. Student Exchange

  • Carl Schreck

Russian students participating in the FLEX program have shared their experiences with new friends in the U.S., like at this Russian Festival in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 2013.

Russian students participating in the FLEX program have shared their experiences with new friends in the U.S., like at this Russian Festival in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 2013.

Russia's past, present, and prospective participants in a popular U.S.-funded student exchange are lamenting their government's decision to halt its participation in the decades-old program amid Moscow's standoff with the West over the Ukraine crisis.

"Politics are politics, but [this] was an incredible experience," Anna Shalashina, a 25-year-old Moscow resident, said of her year in the United States under the U.S.-funded Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program. "It's very disappointing that others won't get this opportunity."

Russia informed the U.S. embassy in Moscow on September 30 that it is halting its participation in the 2015-16 FLEX program, which sends high school students from former Soviet republics to study in the United States, U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Tefft, said in a statement.

Over the past 21 years, more than 8,000 Russian students have attended high school in the United States while living with American families, Tefft added.

"These young Russians have served as cultural ambassadors, representing the best of Russia, to millions of Americans throughout all 50 states," he said.

The announcement spawned a wave of disbelief, disappointment, and disdain among the program's alumni and current exchange students, as well as aspiring participants hoping to make the cut in FLEX's rigorous selection process. Roughly one in 50 applicants is selected for the program, according to the U.S. State Department.

Many turned to social media to protest the Russian government's decision. This included a Twitter campaign under the hashtag #RussiaWantsFlexBack.

"They just took my dream from me. Thanks," wrote one Twitter user who says she is from Yekaterinburg. "I'm outta here as soon as I get the chance."

From Russia With 'Boundless Love'

Sponsored by the U.S. State Department, the program was established in 1992 with the stated goal of building cultural understanding by sending teenagers from former Soviet republics to spend a year studying at U.S. high schools.

More than 20,000 students have taken part since the launch of the program, which also involves Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine.

Several Russian alumni of the FLEX program praised their year in the United States as a life-changing experience.

"English became like a second native language, and I became a different person," Yekaterina Borodina, an 18-year-old student at St. Petersburg State University, wrote on the Russian social-networking site Vkontakte. "I learned so much about the culture, and came to understand so much about people, mentalities and national traits."

Borodina, a native of the city of Izhevsk who attended high school in Missouri during the 2013-14 FLEX program, added that the exchange gave her ample opportunity to talk about her homeland.

"Over the course of nine months, not one day passed that someone wouldn't ask me about Russia," she wrote. " … For nine long months, not a single day passed when I didn't talk about Russia with enormous, boundless love."

Shalashina, who spent the 2005-06 school year in Seattle, said that while world-weary Moscow teenagers have more resources for educational and cultural growth in a major global metropolis, many high school students in Russia's far-flung regions see the FLEX program as one of their best shots to immerse themselves in another culture.

"In small cities like my hometown, contests like the FLEX competition were, in part, a great motivator for kids to study the English language," Shalashina, a native of the city of Nizhnekamsk in Tatarstan, told RFE/RL. "[They] dutifully prepared to take part in the competition so that they would have the chance to win and spend a year in America."

Marina Malykhina, president and CEO of MAGRAM Market Research in Moscow, said spending the 1994-95 school year in Oregon improved not only her English and cultural understanding, but also helped her cultivate her own independence.

She said she hopes the Russian government rethinks its position.

"Of course it's unfortunate that this opportunity won't exist, but I hope it will return at some point in the future," Malykhina, 35, told RFE/RL.

Malykhina is one of numerous Russian alumni of the FLEX program who have gone on to successful professional careers. Another is Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of the state-owned Russian television network RT, according to a promotional brochure for the program.

Moscow's Explanation

Russia's child-protection ombudsman said on October 1 that a same-sex American couple established guardianship over a Russian high school student who was in the United States on an exchange program.

Pavel Astakhov said the alleged incident was one reason for Russia's decision to scrap the 21-year-old FLEX program.

Astakhov said on Twitter on October 1 that the U.S. side had violated its obligation to return Russian students to their country when "a Russian teen stayed behind in the United States."

He later told the state news agency TASS that "a U.S. homosexual couple" had illegally established "guardianship" over a boy whose mother is in Russia.

The Washington-based American Councils for International Education (ACIE), which administers the FLEX program for the State Department, confirmed that a participant in the 2012-13 program did not return to Russia as scheduled upon completion of the exchange.

But the child was not taken into custody by the host family, which was not a same-sex couple, ACIE executive vice president David Patton told RFE/RL. The child completed the program without incident but went "off program" after the exchange was over, Patton said.

"It was a post-program issue, in which case we kind of lose jurisdiction," Patton told RFE/RL.

The student was placed with a "traditional" family setting, Patton said. He added that it “was our understanding” that the child befriended a same-sex couple while participating in the program.

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