What it's like to be an Exchange Student in Iowa as a FLEX finalist from Uzbekistan
Apr 25, 2023
8 mins read
💼 Exchange Student
⏳ Aug 2022 — Jun 2023
✅ J-1 visa
On March 25th 2022, I received a phone call from American Councils congratulating me on being selected as a finalist for the FLEX program. At the time, I was with friends and momentarily confused about the call, having almost forgotten about the opportunity. After confirming the news, I became excited and happy. On July 4th, I was placed in the state of Iowa, in a town called Knoxville, close to the capital city. I arrived in the US in mid-August.
What is FLEX Program
The Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program is a fully-funded initiative for teenagers in Central Asian and European countries to spend a year in the US. Sponsored by the US Department and administered by American Councils, it attracted numerous participants last year and in previous years, including me. I applied and was accepted into the program on my second attempt, as I had failed the first time. I hadn't expected to be selected and hadn't planned on coming to the US through this program, but I was ultimately chosen.
Academics at an American high school
School in the US lasts longer than in Uzbekistan, beginning at 8 AM. and ending at 3:25 PM. Classes in the US aren't as difficult as I expected. In Uzbekistan and Central Asian countries, subjects like science and math are given more importance. When I first arrived in the US, I was placed in Algebra 2, which I found to be quite easy compared to what I had learned at a younger age in Uzbekistan. My counselor suggested trying pre-calculus, which was also relatively simple. However, I wasn't allowed to take more advanced math courses due to school rules for exchange students.
Instead, I chose to enroll in more engaging classes like marketing, business management, language arts, journalism, choir, and government. I find the American education system to be more engaging and focused on activities and student involvement. However, the education system in Uzbekistan is still solid, providing a strong foundation in subjects like science.
Travel opportunities in the US
I am truly grateful for the opportunity to travel to various states during my exchange program. While I didn't visit typical tourist destinations like Florida, California, or New York, I had the chance to explore Wisconsin, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and soon Michigan. I even visited prestigious colleges like Colorado College in Colorado Springs.
One surprising encounter was meeting a fellow Uzbek at a sushi restaurant in Missouri. In May, I will travel to Michigan with the school science club as I won a trip to the state. After that, I'll head to Chicago for a final banquet organized by my placement organization, World Link. It's called the Reentry Banquet and will mark the end of our program year.
At the banquet, we'll receive certificates as alumni of the FLEX program, and there will be an official party for exchange program alumni. I've signed up to sing Adele's "Set Fire to the Rain" during the event. Singing has been a lifelong passion of mine, but I haven't been able to pursue it professionally. It remains a cherished hobby from my childhood!
How I took part in the fundraising event
When I arrived in the US, I learned about a fundraising event called Reggie's Sleepout. It was named after Reggie Kelsey, a 12-year-old boy who tragically died in the Des Moines River due to the inadequacies of the foster care system. The project aims to help homeless individuals in Iowa by raising money for the cause.
Each participant is required to raise at least $100 to participate in the event. They must also construct a box shelter or tent to sleep in overnight. The event takes place in the cold late-October weather at the Drake University Stadium. Throughout the night, attendees experience talks, speeches, and activities designed to provide insight into the challenges faced by homeless individuals.
I discovered this program in early October and managed to raise $1,023 within three weeks. As a team, my friends and I built a box shelter in the shape of a submarine, where we slept for the night. Due to my fundraising efforts, I was invited to a VIP banquet and ranked in the top five individual fundraisers for the event. My achievement was even featured on a local news website.
This experience was incredibly meaningful to me, as it taught me the importance of giving back to the community, even in a wealthy country like the United States. On the night of October 29th, I joined my team at the Drake University Stadium, where we set up our box shelter and spent the night. Though we didn't sleep much, we enjoyed talking, playing games, and bonding with each other.
Adjustment to the US culture
Connecting with teenagers my age was challenging when I first arrived at school. Although I am now officially an adult, I still find myself among teenagers. It was difficult to be around people who prioritized having fun over more important things. While they enjoyed spending their free time partying, hanging out with friends or girlfriends/boyfriends, I preferred going to the library, taking walks, and engaging in long conversations. However, I did make a few good friends with whom I share weekly dinners, visit the library, and go to a beautiful beach nearby to watch the sunset.
Diversity of my city
In my town, diversity is limited, with few Muslim residents and no mosques for me to attend Jummah or other prayers. Many locals are unfamiliar with the actual practice of Islam, so I became a representation of the religion to them. It was challenging to find like-minded individuals in my community, which became especially difficult during the winter months, but I made new friends who shared my interests and energy.-
How I would describe my experience
To describe my study abroad experience, I would use the following three words: spontaneous, stressful, and worthwhile. Upon arriving in the US, the initial excitement lasts for a few months. I felt like I was living my dream. However, as time passed, I experienced stress, especially when I lost friends. It wasn't the loss of friends that was stressful, but rather the realization that I was alone with no support system. No one I knew lived in Iowa, except for one other exchange student who was miles away.
Living with a host family also contributed to the stress, and I eventually changed to a second host family. The experience was spontaneous because I never knew what would happen next. I didn't anticipate the stressful times or that I would change host families. I also didn't know how much I would grow and learn as a person. My experience included activities I had never thought of or been interested in before, as well as both wise and foolish decisions.
The unpredictability of studying abroad extended to every aspect of life. I thought I would simply go to school, live with my host family, share meals, and play sports. But that's not what being a student abroad entails, whether in college or high school. Life was full of surprises, like when I was involved in a car accident. It was a serious incident where our car rolled three times, but miraculously, everyone emerged unscathed. I attribute our survival to sheer luck.
How I learned English
I have a long and somewhat complicated history of learning English. It wasn't always enjoyable or straightforward, but it was unique to me. When I think of someone who scored high on the IELTS exam, around 7, 7.5 or 8, I typically imagine them diligently studying and practicing all aspects of the language. My journey, however, was quite different.
My first encounter with English was in second or third grade, around the age of nine or ten. At the time, I was a top student in my class, and I remember hearing about an upcoming English exam. This surprised me because we didn't have English classes at that stage; we would only start learning English in the fifth grade. Eager to prepare for the exam, I asked my sister for an English book, and despite not knowing the language, I attempted to read it. I've always been a self-learner, having taught myself the alphabet of Uzbek language at the age of five.
In fifth grade, I liked my English teacher but wasn't truly interested in the subject. In sixth grade, my family enrolled me in a study center in Fergana called Children House, but my group was disbanded after three months due to a lack of students. I took a break from English and resumed my studies in seventh grade in Margilan, only to quit again after three months because I didn't like the teacher.
In ninth grade, I joined English courses at Unity Academy in Fergana and remained consistent in my studies. I studied general English up to level B2 for a year and prepared for the IELTS exam for about five or six months. When it came time to apply to universities, I realized I needed an IELTS certificate or another international testing system certificate. I took IELTS without any preparation and surprisingly scored a 7. Although I have the potential to score higher, I don't feel the need to retake the exam since I've already been accepted into my university, and received a scholarship.
Throughout my English learning journey, I also taught the language. I volunteered as an English teacher for a charity program I called Rockabye, inspired by Anne-Marie's song of the same name. The song resonated with me and my family's experiences, as I paid for my own classes by working. Thanks to all these experiences, I became fluent in English by the age of 16. I genuinely enjoyed teaching, and my students appreciated my methods. Some of my former students have gone on to study in London, earn their own IELTS certificates, and become semifinalists in the FLEX program. Teaching English was a meaningful way to spend my teenage years and invest my time in something worthwhile.
Advice for FLEX applicants
As a potential FLEX applicant, it is essential to be genuine and respectful. Reach out to a FLEX alumnus or someone who has experienced the program firsthand. When you communicate with them, maintain a professional and courteous tone. If you want to ask for their help or advice, approach them formally and respectfully, as they are not your friends but rather someone who can offer valuable guidance.
Next, be open-minded and focus on personal growth. Success in the FLEX program is not like acing the SAT or IELTS; it is not merely an exam. Instead, it requires developing yourself as a person, leader, and responsible community member. Engage in community work, volunteering, and leadership activities like debates or projects. If you have not yet made a positive impact in your local community, start there before seeking to contribute to a community in the US.
Secondly, work diligently on self-improvement. Allow yourself to rest when feeling overwhelmed, but do not be lazy when it comes to personal growth. Develop your leadership skills, open-mindedness, and thoughtfulness.
Lastly, remember to always be respectful and humble when communicating with others. Regardless of their beliefs, background, or orientation, show them the respect they deserve from the outset. This is a crucial skill to develop before arriving in the US, as the cultural environment can be vastly different from what you might be used to.
Other programs to apply
I recently shared a post about various programs that offer excellent opportunities for students. After thorough research, I found three standout options. The first is the FLEX (Future Leaders Exchange) program, which facilitates cultural exchanges. The second is UWC (United World Colleges), an exceptional program that caters to high school students seeking to attend prestigious colleges and obtain an International Baccalaureate diploma. UWC focuses on enhancing students' knowledge in science, arts, and other fields, making it an excellent opportunity for those interested in studying abroad for free. The third program TechGirls specifically designed for girls with an interest in technology, offering them a unique chance to explore their passion.
Co-founder & CEO of Borderless
1 month ago
This interview was done by our ambassador @yulduz_sye!
1 month ago
Thanks for sharing my story!
1 month ago
You are so perfect person(ideal)
1 month ago
Great job, Saidamir!
Keep it up!!!