A Year of New Experiences

Two female exchange students smile at the camera in an outdoor setting.
From her host community of Spokane, Washington, Polina beams as she recalls the highlights of her academic year on the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program.

“I’m fully enjoying my time here! I have everything I need: a great host family, people who care about me and have been supporting me from the very first day I met them, a school with good teachers, and new friends.”

But like many high school students who consider studying abroad, Polina wasn’t always so sure her experience would be a positive one.

“Honestly, in the very beginning, I wasn’t that confident of what I’m saying now. My whole life my parents were around me, holding my hand and ready to help at any moment, to give advice, and so on,” reflects Polina, who has cerebral palsy and uses a forearm crutch for mobility. “So I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make it on my own for a whole school year.”

And now? “I’ve had an amazing experience – an experience of problem-solving and making my own decisions.”

Some of Polina’s best experiences in the United States have been on the court. “I can definitely say that wheelchair basketball is a new experience for me. I was a competitive swimmer in Russia, but it wasn’t a team sport. I really want to keep doing wheelchair basketball after I go back to Russia.”

Off the court, Polina is gaining invaluable work experience as a volunteer at a children’s museum, which includes educational programs about animals and other topics.

“Usually, when I tell the kids something about lizards, I take one of them out of the den and allow the kids to pet him. I’m actually not too sure who gets more excited at this time, the kids or me!”

Polina is also gaining insight and skills through her involvement in DECA, a high school program for future entrepreneurs and business leaders.

“Participation in DECA is an amazing experience for me. It’s helped me develop different life skills, such as goal setting, consensus building, project management, and budgeting.”

As a member of DECA, Polina even had an opportunity to travel to Seattle, Washington, where she met with experienced business professionals who shared about how to dress professionally and greet people.

“Now I know about the importance of making eye contact during a job interview, for example, which actually makes a big difference.”

Asked what she would say to students with disabilities who are thinking about applying to study abroad, Polina doesn’t hesitate.

“If you still have doubts about whether you should try or not, I definitely think you should. And I’m not saying that because I’m supposed to, but because I really feel this way. You never know what will lead you to a happy, successful, and independent life, so FLEX is worth a try!"