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Central Asia: Student Exchanges With U.S. Broaden Cultural Understanding

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, educational exchanges between the United States and Central Asia have been growing rapidly. Thousands of Central Asian students have studied at U.S. schools and lived with host families as part of U.S.-funded programs. The programs are aimed at fostering greater understanding between cultures. The students are also expected to share their experiences with their home communities.

Prague, 12 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. State Department is expanding its student-exchange programs in Muslim countries. Steven Hart is deputy assistant secretary for professional exchanges for the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). Hart said that the U.S. Congress recently allocated an additional $7 million to conduct high-school exchanges with youth in Islamic countries. The $120 million program will include young people in Muslim states from Algeria to Indonesia, Pakistan and India, and all five Central Asian republics.

Hart said that such programs provide an opportunity to reach out to the younger generation in the Islamic world and contribute to their understanding of American society and culture. He said that greater understanding between the United States and Muslim countries is much needed in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. "In the aftermath of 9/11, we realized that we had been underinvested in much of the Islamic world in our effort to conduct people-to-people diplomacy. We know that outreach to young people is very important to increasing mutual understanding. It is through these type of exchanges that we will effect genuine change in how people understand us," Hart said.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, there has been a significant growth in educational exchanges between the United States and the countries of Central Asia. The ECA offers several exchange programs for former Soviet republics. Participants range from high-school students to postgraduate professionals.

Future Leader Exchange (FLEX) is one of the U.S.-funded programs focusing on high-school students. FLEX was established in 1992 under the Freedom Support Act. Since then, more than 11,000 young people from countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States have spent an academic year in the United States on the FLEX program. They study in U.S. schools and live with host families.

During the 2002-03 school year, FLEX has more than 1,200 participants, including 75 high-school students from Uzbekistan, 65 from Kazakhstan, and 21 students from Tajikistan. Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan have each sent 50 students.

Katy Pearce is a program coordinator with Project Harmony and works with FLEX participants in the United States. She said that exchange programs provide opportunities for high-school students from the former Soviet Union to live in a democratic society. She said such experiences help to promote democratic values in Eurasia. "It gives an opportunity for students in these republics to get to study in the United States. However, the formal goals of the program are to let the students see America and its democratic operations in order to promote democratic values and institutions in Central Asia and other Eurasian republics. Additionally, they want students to learn about community development, civil society, as well as generally the American educational system," Pearce said.

Former U.S. exchange students have established a new social network that keeps them connected. The American Councils for International Education and local U.S. embassies encourage FLEX alumni to get involved in the nongovernmental sector and engage in community service in their home countries.

Manuchehr Kholov, a former FLEX exchange student, now works as an alumni coordinator with Accels, a division of the American Councils for International Education in Dushanbe. Manuchehr said the FLEX program does not end when students leave the United States.

Kholov said that a student who participates in the program carries the responsibility of giving back to his or her home community, teaching others what has been learned in the United States. "I have learned so many things in America. I became familiar with American culture, which is quite different from our Tajik culture. I learned about human rights and other democratic values," Kholov said.

Exchange programs like FLEX have no shortage of applicants. Spending a year in the United States as an exchange student is a dream shared by almost all students in Central Asia.

The recruitment and selection process is conducted by the American Councils for International Education. The ECA's Hart told RFE/RL that FLEX is an open, merit-based program and that anyone who meets the requirements can apply. He said that no one is discriminated against on the basis of sex, nationality, religion, or social and economic status. "It is a very, very important construct of the program. We make sure to the best of our ability that those who are allowed to participate in this program do so based on open merit, not on social or economic status. It is very important because it reflects one of our core values of our democratic system, that you get ahead because of your abilities, not because of who you know or who your parents were," Hart said.

However, with corruption and nepotism widespread in Central Asian countries, many young people believe that students from families with no connections have little chance of studying abroad. They say that in Central Asia, students cannot even enter provincial universities, let alone pass exams for foreign schools, without paying a bribe or having connections.

In the end, exchange students are chosen by an independent jury in the United States. Local staff in Central Asian countries have little say in the process. But applicants say local staff should not get involved at all. According to some students, local staff members sometimes find ways to circumvent the rules and award friends, relatives, and students who come from influential families.

Yusuf is a young Uzbek journalist from Tashkent. He told RFE/RL that he took tests to participate in an exchange program for postgraduate professionals three years ago. "Contestants had to have a special recommendation. After submitting an application, we would take four exams. Most of the exams were taken by officials from the Uzbek government, especially from the office of the president. In the first place, they would pay attention to the applicant's social background. They would check if the applicant was a member of any political movement. Apart from professional abilities, they would test applicants on modern Uzbek history, and during this test they would check contestants' points of view on government policies," Yusuf said.

Yusuf said he is convinced he was rejected from studying in the United States because of his social background. "Despite passing all tests successfully, they gave me back my documents. I was told that the quota provided only one place for journalists, but that was also canceled. Later, I found out that they sent someone else [to the United States] instead of me," Yusuf said.

But officials from Accels and alumni in Central Asia vigorously deny that bribery and nepotism are involved in the selection of exchange students.

Kholov said he had heard rumors about corruption but that his own experience proved the opposite. "In 1999, when I was going to take the test, frankly, I also heard many rumors about bribery. Someone also told me that if I paid a couple of thousand dollars I could be selected without actually taking the exams. I didn't have such money. But I passed all the exams and became an exchange student. Those rumors about bribery and nepotism were not true."

Muharram Oqilova, an alumna from Khojand, Tajikistan, said she is satisfied with the selection procedure, but she said the number of positions is limited and the requirements are high. "Since the 1990s, many contests have been taking place for schoolchildren, students, and postgraduates. But quotas are very limited, and the requirements are very strict. We have so many young people who have never been abroad. I wish they could give us more [positions]," Oqilova said.

Tuichi Meliboyev, an alumnus from Tashkent, feels the same way. He said the exchange programs should be expanded because they have a great impact on Central Asian communities, especially at a time when young people are being exposed to religious extremism in some regions. "Participants of these programs get a chance to exchange cultures with the world. In this case, we are talking about exchanging cultures with the U.S.A. And they would also understand the value of peace and international friendship, which this program strongly supports. Thus, participants of this program will have the understanding and the worldview on extremism, and they start to separate what is good and what is bad. Surely, when the participants complete this program, they will know that extremism is not something which should be supported, and that it is very harmful for the society," Meliboyev said.

Alumni say the exchange programs benefit communities in both the United States and Central Asia. Through these programs, Americans communicate directly with young people from Muslim countries. This people-to-people diplomacy, they say, helps to dispel stereotypes and misconceptions.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.