Students are never bored at the American Corner in Mary, Turkmenistan, a cultural exchange and education center that hosts over 40 activities every month.
This article was originally published in the Bradley Herald the hub for FLEX alumni and their stories.
In the middle of the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan lies the city of Mary, built on an oasis next to one of the country's major rivers. And, in Mary a different kind of oasis exists for exceptional students: it's tucked away in an American cultural center, where local high school students discover international programs, participate in educational projects, and learn about opportunities to apply to US colleges and universities.
The American Corner in Mary hosts nearly 40 activities every month, including academic writing sessions, educational workshops, movie nights, and guest speaker events. Alumni of the Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX), students who have spent a year living with an American host family and attending a local high school, regularly conduct projects to introduce younger students to American culture through their experiences.
"We are never bored here. Each activity gathers dozens of enthusiastic young people and, often, they are inspired to come up with their own initiatives as a result," says the American Corner's EducationUSA Adviser and FLEX alumna Diana.
Advising Local Students
Diana primarily works with Turkmen high school students who are planning to apply to US colleges through the EducationUSA Cohort Group Advising program. Since many of Turkmenistan's high school graduates lack sufficient English skills and do not have experience filling out extensive application forms in a foreign language, the FLEX alumna helps them to develop their knowledge of the English language and practice it through individual consultations and regular study sessions.
"We are [also] sharing strategies on passing the SAT and TOEFL tests, providing advice on finding a suitable school and choosing a major, and assisting with the search for financial aid. All the services are free of charge and assistance is based on students' interests and capacities," explains Diana.
One of the students taking part in the EducationUSA advising program is 2016 FLEX alumna Gyzylgul. Sparked by her interest in healthcare, she is now preparing to apply to US medical schools. Gyzylgul attributes her interest in receiving a US medical education to her FLEX program host mother's influence: "My American host mom is a nurse and, during my FLEX exchange year, she told me a lot about her work. She also took me to her office once and I was very impressed by what I saw. To build on my knowledge, I took a nursing college class in my high school and now I'm determined to become an oncologist a doctor specializing in cancer treatment," says the FLEX alumna.
Sharing the American Experience
For Gyzylgul, helping and supporting people means everything. She started volunteering at the American Corner in Mary before her FLEX year and has continued organizing educational events for students since her return to Turkmenistan. Last summer, with several FLEX alumni, she led two interactive workshops to immerse participants in aspects of American culture; one workshop explored US regional differences and the second shared a day in a student's life at an American high school.
"In the traveling project, we took young people on a virtual tour of various American regions. Every region in the US is unique and we talked about weather conditions, food, traditions, and shared personal stories," says Gyzylgul. In the high school workshop, the participants' role-played as American students: they chose their subjects, attended classes, ate an American high school-style lunch, and even took part in extracurricular activities.
In October, the FLEX alumna decided to bring two cultures even closer by asking her former host parents in Iowa to participate in a Skype conversation with a group of local students. This Skype session was part of an ongoing virtual exchange project where FLEX alumni from Mary invite their host families to talk to young people in the community.
Gyzylgul's host family eagerly agreed and the session was set up for 10AM Turkmenistan time (11PM Iowa time). The event stirred a lot of interest in both corners of the world. Many young people in Mary were excited to talk to a real American family; while in Iowa, Gyzylgul's host parents shared the news with their family and friends.
"My little American sister didn't want to miss it and asked her parents to wake her up. And my host grandparents wanted to attend it as well, but it was a bit too late for them to drive," says Gyzylgul.
"It couldn't have gone any better each side asked the other lots of questions and told many great stories. We couldn't stop discussing our cultures and laughed so much," she adds.
Since the FLEX alumna had made many traditional Turkmen dishes for her host family, the Americans felt at ease discussing their favorite Central Asian foods. Mary's students, on the other hand, knew a lot about famous American fast food chains and sports.
"The American family and Turkmen students had obviously never met each other in real life. But they quickly felt comfortable talking to each other based on their universal similarities," highlights Diana.
Getting to the Essence of Cultural Exchange
To both Diana and Gyzylgul, that's the essence of international exchange learning more about each other and using this knowledge to make a difference in their communities and on a global scale.
"We, the FLEX alumni, are all intercultural ambassadors now and we should use the knowledge of our countries in order to contribute to our communities," Diana encourages her peers. "International exchange is all about sharing skills and traditions and we should continue to do it upon our return home,"
About the Future Leaders Exchange Program
The Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX) is a competitive, merit-based scholarship program funded by the US Department of State. FLEX students who pass multiple rounds of testing earn a scholarship to spend an academic year in the United States living with a volunteer host family and attending a US high school.
FLEX students gain leadership skills, learn about American society and values, and teach Americans about FLEX countries and cultures. FLEX is a highly competitive program with over 25,000 alumni who have contributed over one million hours of community service in cities and towns across America. The students return home to active alumni networks that carry out inspiring activities.
Interested in sharing your world with a bright, young scholarship student like Gyzylgul? Learn more about hosting a FLEX student.
EducationUSA is a US Department of State network of over 400 internationally based student advising centers in over 170 countries. The EducationUSA network promotes US higher education to students around the world by offering accurate, comprehensive, and current information about opportunities to study at accredited postsecondary institutions in the US