What is FLEX (A-SMYLE)?
FLEX (formerly named A-SMYLE) is a program that helps high school students become exchange students in the US via a scholarship funded by the US Department of State. During their exchange, students live with an American host family and go to a local high school. FLEX covers Serbia, Montenegro, and many other countries in Europe and Asia. There is a similar program called YES that covers a bunch of other countries including Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia.
One thing that makes FLEX (and YES) program unique is the financial support all participants get. The finalists that are chosen receive scholarships from the American government. Almost all expenses are covered including the plane ticket, visa, finding a host family and school, and even a monthly stipend.
How it all started?
I heard about FLEX back when I was in 7th grade when a kid 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 applied. I passed the first round of testing, but not the second one (out of four).
Next year I decided to try again. This time I passed and found out that I would become an exchange student.
I had to wait for a few months until I learned what city I’ll be placed in and who my host family will be. This uncertainty was driving me crazy. 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…
After a few months, I finally got the answer.
My Host Family and City
I was placed in Rochester, a city on the shore of Lake Ontario in the state of New York. With a 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. I wasn’t a fan of upstate New York winter, but I loved spring and fall in Rochester.
My host parents live in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods of Rochester. At first sight it reminded me of suburban neighborhoods I’ve seen in Hollywood movies.
I was lucky to have a host family that I clicked with right away. They are amazing and we get along great to this very day. They were always there for me. I’ve made amazing memories with them, my favorite being our trips to Florida and New York City. My host family is one of the main reasons why my exchange year was an unforgettable experience.
I had huge expectations for my school. I expected a typical American high school that I’d seen in movies. Lockers, spectacular sport events, a cafeteria with underwhelming food, school parties. I also thought there would be clear divisions among students, including jocks, popular kids, artsy ones, etc.
To my surprise, my school wasn’t all that typical. It was an art high school. Every student picks their major: drama, dance, vocal, instrumental, visual arts or theater tech. I picked drama and I could choose the rest of my subjects, unlike my school back in Europe. I picked Jazz Dance, Math, Participation in Government and Economics along with English and US History which were mandatory for FLEX exchange students.
I was on the volleyball team. Looking back it was the best way to make friends at the beginning of the school year. I sang in the choir and danced in my school’s Dance Concert. I also helped out with costumes for a school play.
When I compare my American school to my school in Europe I’d have to say that American high school was way easier. I spent much less time studying, but I hated that I had homework every day. I rarely had homework back home and it was hard adjusting to it. There was more research and writing in the US, while in Serbia I spent much more time memorizing facts.
I was nervous about making friends since I was a foreigner. But, my high school has had new exchange students for years, so everyone was used to that. What I found weird is that most students have never heard of Serbia, my home country. Almost everyone thought I was from Siberia or Syria. But they were open to meeting me and learning more about where I come from.
I’ve made friends that I’m still in touch with. Some of them are locals and some of them are exchange students from countries like Russia, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, etc.
The best part of being an exchange student!
I visited Niagara Falls with my host family. I also went to sunny Florida and experienced Disney World and Universal Studios, including Harry Potter Wizarding World. For a Potterhead and Disney fan, it was a dream come true.
New York City was my favorite trip. Experiencing NYC as a 17-year-old girl was like living in a movie. I visited places I had always dreamed of visiting. The Statue of Liberty, Times Square, Central Park, Empire State Building, a show on Broadway, and more.
As a FLEX exchange student I could apply to participate in workshops all over the country. I was selected to be a participant at a workshop in Washington, DC and one in Baltimore, Maryland. What’s amazing 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 after building a life for an entire year, and you have to leave your friends behind new friends. You’re going back home just when this foreign country was starting to feel like a home.
Being an exchange student is one of my favorite experience up to date but it is bittersweet. I have a second home on the other side of the globe but I’m always missing someone or something. Going back to your home country with a new perspective is priceless. Now, years later, I realize what a privilege being an exchange student is. In this article I share my top five reasons why you should become an exchange student, too.
What country would you want to be an exchange student in?