How I qualified for a high school exchange program

Exchange year in PA
Me in my hometown before US year

Me standing by the river in my hometown of Chelyabinsk, summer of 2002.

For whoever might care, but mostly, for me, I’m starting this series of random stories I never have the chance to reflect upon in everyday conversations.
I was a visiting high school student to the USA in 2002-2003. What got me there is what causes a lot of great things in life to happen – chance.
The background is that I had just come back from Israel where my parents had undertaken an ultimately failed attempt to move, and started going to the school I had attended before I left Russia.
So I was mostly focused on fitting back in rather than exploring new education opportunities. In any case, my school was a foreign language school, meaning that languages were taught more extensively and rigorously than in other schools.
So, one day, it was announced that “ASPRYAL” would take place. Some time later I found out ASPRYAL was a Russian acronym standing for an association of Russian teachers and was the organisation in charge of the event.
Everyone in my class decided to go to the event (which I had very little idea about), so I followed lead. It turned out to be the first round of testing for a US Dept of State exchange program called FLEX.
Since I wasn’t aware of how serious everything was, I cleared the first round, which contained a basic multiple-choice test of English, without any trouble. The second round was a more comprehensive pre-TOEFL test.

The waiting period for the results was longer this time, and I had a chance to realize this was all serious. When I found out I had passed the second round, too, I received a rather detailed application package where I had to provide substantial supporting documentation, apart from completing the forms. The time had come to decide if I was in.

Of course, I couldn’t let a change like that to slip away. Pretty much everything was covered in the program: travel, study, accommodation. Participants were even paid a small allowance for personal expenses. The goal was to let kids who demonstrated leadership potential live in a small American community for a year. (Dear Department of State! Are you sure the money was not misallocated in my case? I’d rather hope not…)

I made an incredible, but typical amount of mess-ups on my application, starting from format violations to bad handwriting. I apprehended one of them might make me ineligible. But fool’s luck it was. I made it to the finals.

Then (or was it somewhere in between?) came the interview. I had to show why I wanted to go to the US. I had inevitably been warned by my teacher not to say I wanted to hang out and buy new clothes. So I prepared this coherent speech on how I wanted to learn American culture and so forth.

Was I lying that time? Not exactly. I knew embarrassingly little about the country, so I subsequently came in with a pristine, non-stereotyped mind. What was true was the compulsive desire to talk to whoever was speaking a foreign language as their first… which, I must admit, I’ve never gotten over. (Dear friends, don’t you fret, I don’t talk to you for language practice. This obsession only works for strangers, which makes it all the more interesting).

In any case, as the word came out that I had qualified for the program and teachers at school were starting to congratulate me, I was growing more and more uneasy about going. I had striven and succeeded to establish new friendships and get involved in out-of-class activities, and having to leave all I’d achieved didn’t make me happy at that moment.

Next time, I’ll look at my pre-departure orientation and departure. Stay tuned!

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