What is FLEX (A-SMYLE)?
FLEX program (formerly named A-SMYLE) is a program in which high school students win a scholarship to become exchange students in the US. During that year, they live with an American host family and go to a local high school. FLEX is a program for Serbia, Montenegro, and quite a few more countries in Europe and Asia. There is a similar program called YES which has participants from a bunch of other countries including Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia.
One thing that makes FLEX (and YES) unique is the financial support all participants get. The finalists that are chosen receive scholarships from the American government. This means that almost all expenses are covered including the plane ticket, visa, finding a host family and school you’ll attend, and even a monthly stipend.
How it all started?
I heard about FLEX back when I was in elementary school when someone from my hometown had received the scholarship. That’s when I decided I would apply for the program as soon as I got the chance. When I was a freshman in high school I went to the first round of testing. I passed the first one, but not the second one (out of four).
Next year I decided to try again. I ended up passing all testing rounds and found out that I will become an exchange student.
After this I had to wait for a few long months until I learned what city I’ll be placed in and who my host family will be. This uncertainty was SO hard because I had no idea what part of America I’d be living in, what my family would be like, whether I’d be living in a city or a rural area, etc. After a few months, I finally got the answer.
City and Family
I was placed in Rochester, a city on the shore of Lake Ontario in the state of New York. With the population of around 210k it’s the third most populous city in New York state. With a lot of events and a few festivals going on (Lilac Festival, Jazz Festival, Fringe Festival… ) it’s an interesting place to live in. While I was living in Rochester, the winter was cold and windy, and we had a LOT of snow. This was not my favorite thing about Rochester, but I was excited for every sunny spring day.
My host parents live in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods of Rochester and when I first saw it, it reminded me of suburban neighborhood from American movies. I was lucky to have an awesome host family that I clicked with right away and got along with. They were always there for me and helped me with every problem I had encountered. I’ve made amazing memories with them, my favorite being the phenomenal trips to Florida and New York City. My host family, with whom I’m still in touch with, is one of the main reasons why my exchange year was such a positive and unforgettable experience.
American high school. I was expecting a typical American high school that I’ve seen in the movies. The lockers, a cafeteria with not the best food, spectacular sport games, school parties, as well as students divided in groups like jocks, popular kids, artsy ones, etc. My American school wasn’t the typical high school. It’s an art high school. Every student picks their major which can be drama, dance, vocal, instrumental, visual arts or theater tech. My major was drama and I could choose the rest of the subjects, unlike most European schools. As an exchange student I had to take English and US History. Besides that, I picked Jazz Dance, Math, Participation in Government and Economics.
I was on the volleyball team, which was a great way to make friends at the beginning of the school year. I was also in a choir, in my school’s Dance Concert and I helped out with costumes for a school play.
What all American high schools have in common is that you can choose what subjects and extracurricular activities you want to do. As an exchange student you can pick whatever you’re interested in. When I compare my American school to my school in Serbia I’d have to say that was easier when it comes to how much time I had to spend studying. What was really hard for me is doing homework every day. Homework is great because it makes you study regularly, but it was something I had a hard time adjusting to. There was also more skill development, like research and writing, rather than memorizing facts.
School is also the place where I had met most of my friends. I was nervous about making friends since I was a foreigner. But, my high school has had new exchange students join them for years, so everyone was already used to that. The only thing that everyone found weird is that I was from Serbia, which most students haven’t heard of. When the school year started a lot of people thought I was from Siberia or Syria. Still, everyone was very open to meeting me and learning more about where I come from. I’ve made many friends that I’m still in touch with. Some my friends are locals and some of them are other exchange students from countries like Russia, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, etc.
One of the best things about being an exchange student!
I visited Niagara Falls with my host family. I also had an opportunity to go to sunny Florida and visit Disney World and Universal Studios (including Harry Potter Wizarding World). For a huge Harry Potter and Disney fan, it was a dream come true.
My favorite trip was New York City. Experiencing it was like living in a movie. In just a few days, I went to places I had always dreamed to visit including the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, Central Park, Empire State Building, a show on Broadway, etc.
As an exchange student I could apply to participate in some workshops all over the country. I was chosen to be a participant at a workshop in Washington, DC and Baltimore, Maryland. What’s awesome about these workshops is that all costs are covered. You get to attend the workshop, visit a new city and meet people from all around the world for free.
Going home: the end or the beginning?
After an unforgettable ten months, it was time to go home. For most exchange students this is the toughest moment. You’re leaving the life you were living for the past year, and your new friends. You’re going back home at the moment when this foreign country was starting to feel like a home. Soon you start realizing that this is only the beginning of your experience.
Being an exchange student is one of my favorite experience up to date. So many new experiences, stories to tell and lessons you’ve learnt along the way. Most importantly, you have a second home on the other side of the globe. At least that’s what my experience was like. There is a disadvantage to being an exchange student: you’re always missing someone or something. But, being back in your home country with a new perspective is priceless. Now, years later, I realize what a privilege being an exchange student is. Find out what my top five reasons why you should become an exchange student are.
What country would you want to be an exchange student in?