What is FLEX (A-SMYLE)?
FLEX program or A-SMYLE, which is what it used to be called, is a program in which high school students win a scholarship to become exchange students in the US. During that year, they live in 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 Kosovo, 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’d heard about FLEX back when I was in elementary school when someone from the town I live in 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 on, but not the second one (out of four).
Next year I decided to try again. I ended up passing all the rounds of testings and found out that I will become an exchange student. The point is that you should always TRY even if you think you have no chance to succeed.
After this I had to wait for a few long months until I learned in 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 210 000 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 a super interesting place to live in. Another interesting detail about the year I was living in Rochester is the windy snowy freezing weather in the winter that I could not get used to. This was definitely not my favorite thing about Rochester, but it made me super excited for every sunny and warm day when spring came.
My host parents live in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods of Rochester and when I first saw it, it reminded me of Wisteria Lane from Desperate Housewives. I was lucky to have an awesome host family that I clicked with right away and got along really well. 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. Honestly, I was expecting a typical American high school that I’ve seen in the movies. This means famous 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. However, my school wasn’t the typical high school and it was very unique. It’s actually a school focused on arts. Every student picks their major which can be drama, dance, vocal, instrumental, visual arts and theater tech. My major was drama and I could actually choose the rest of the subjects unlike most European schools. As an exchange student I had to take English and US History. Other than that I picked Jazz Dance, Math, Participation in Government and Economics.
When it comes to extracurricular activities 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 schools 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. This means that 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. However, what was really hard for me is that I had to do homework every day and not just study before the test. This is great because it makes you study regularly, but it was something I had a hard time adjusting to. There was also much more skill development, like research and writing than memorizing facts.
School is also the place where I had met most of my friends. In the beginning I expected that everyone would look at me in a weird way, because I’m not a local. 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 of the people haven’t heard of. So, when the school year started a lot of people thought I was from Siberia or Syria or they just knew that it’s a small country somewhere in Europe. Still, everyone was very open to meeting me and learning more about where I come from. Because of this I had made many friends that I’m still in touch with. Some of the friends I made are locals and some of them were other exchange students from countries like Russia, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, etc.
This is absolutely one of the best things that you experience during your exchange year. With my host family I visited Niagara Falls, which are really close to Rochester.
I also had an opportunity to visit sunny Florida and my favorite experiences were the breathtaking Disney World and Universal Studios where my favorite Harry Potter Wizarding World is located. For a huge Harry Potter and Disney fan this was definitely something that had been on my bucket list.
My favorite trip and favorite city is New York City. Experiencing it was like living in a movie. In a few days I saw so many parts of the city that 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. So I did and I was chosen to be a participant at a workshop in Washington, DC and Baltimore, Maryland. What’s awesome about these workshops is that if you are chosen to be a participants all costs are covered, which means 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 unforgettable ten months, it’s time to go home. For most exchange students this is the hardest moment – you’re leaving the life you were living for the past year, the friends you had made there and you’re going 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. You can see whether you want more adventured like this or it was enough for you.
Whatever the answer to this question is, being an exchange student is always a plus, because you’re coming home with so many new experiences and new stories, you’ve learned some things about yourself and a lot of things about the country that you hadn’t known a lot about previously. Most importantly, you’ve gained friends from around the world and 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: I constantly miss someone or something, wherever I am. But, that’s okay, being back in your home country with a new perspective is priceless. Now, four years later, I realize what an 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?