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From Mongolia to Arizona: Azzaya's FLEX Journey


Young people all around the world are looking for experiences to challenge themselves, build their global leadership skills, and leave a positive impact on the world – including young people with disabilities.

The decision to study abroad as a high school student is a big one: living with a host family, meeting new classmates and teachers, immersing yourself into a new culture, and experiencing life outside of your typical routine. This can be a transformative, life changing experience, as many young leaders who are alumni of the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) and Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) programs have shared.

Azzaya Ariunbold – FLEX 2019-2020

Meet Azzaya, a young Deaf woman from Mongolia who studied a full academic year in the U.S. as part of the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) Program in 2019-2020. Azzaya heard about the FLEX program from a friend who participated the year prior, and shared, “I was immediately intrigued. I knew it would be not only an incredible opportunity for personal growth and development, but also a chance to form lifelong connections and memories. […] This was an experience I did not want to miss out on.”

As a Deaf student, Azzaya had concerns about whether she would be able to fully participate in the program and how her disability would be perceived in her host community.

“One of my main concerns was whether or not the program would be able to accommodate my disability and provide the necessary support for me to have a successful exchange experience. I also wondered if the support systems in place would be adequate for me to navigate the challenges of studying abroad in a different country.

I was relieved to learn that FLEX has a strong commitment to supporting students with disabilities and providing accommodations as needed. They assured me that they would work with me to ensure that my needs were met and that I would have a positive and inclusive experience in the program.”

Now several years after her exchange, Azzaya wants other students with disabilities to consider the FLEX and YES program: “First and foremost, believe in yourself and your abilities. Having a disability should not deter you from pursuing your dreams of studying abroad and immersing yourself in a new culture.”

Continue reading to learn more about Azzaya’s experience with the FLEX program, and her reflections now as an alumna.

Azzaya, an alumna from Mongolia, stands in front of a cactus with her hand blocking the sun.
Azzaya, FLEX alumna from Mongolia, stands in front of a cactus in her host state of Arizona.

Why did you decide to apply for FLEX?

I decided to apply for the FLEX program because of the incredible opportunities it offers for cultural exchange and personal growth. As someone who has always been curious about different cultures and languages, I knew that this program would provide a unique chance to immerse myself in a new environment and learn firsthand about a different way of life. Living with a host family provides a much deeper understanding of a culture than just visiting as a tourist. [I knew I would] have the opportunity to truly experience daily life in a different country. I would learn their customs, traditions, and language, and forge meaningful connections with my host family members.

The FLEX program was a chance to challenge myself and step out of my comfort zone. I believe that growth comes from pushing oneself to try new things and face new challenges. By participating in this program, I would be able to test my adaptability, resilience, and openness to new experiences. Finally, the program aligned with my goal of becoming a global citizen and making a positive impact on the world.

What is something you learned about yourself during your exchange?

One of the biggest things I discovered was my ability to adapt and thrive in new environments. Moving to a different country, with a different culture and language, was initially intimidating. But, I soon found that I was able to quickly adapt and make the most of my experience. I also learned that I am more resilient than I thought. Living in a foreign country, away from my family and friends, presented many challenges and obstacles. However, I was able to face these challenges head-on and come out stronger on the other side. I realized that I have the strength and determination to overcome any difficulties that come my way.

Azzaya and host mom in a grocery store pushing a full cart.
Azzaya and her host family grocery shopping together during her exchange year.

What advice do you have for other students with disabilities who are thinking about applying for FLEX or YES?

Reach out to the program administrators and discuss any concerns or accommodations you may require your exchange. Most programs have dedicated staff to support students with disabilities and make the necessary arrangements to ensure a successful experience. It is crucial to be open and honest about your disability during the application process. This will help the program coordinators understand your needs and provide the necessary support throughout the program.

Remember, your disability is a part of who you are. There is no shame in asking for help when needed. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and embrace the new experiences and adventures that await you. Studying abroad is a transformative experience that will shape your perspective and broaden your horizons, regardless of any disabilities you may have. Good luck on your journey, and remember that the world is yours to explore!

Click here to learn more about applying for FLEX as a student with a disability.

Click here to learn more about MIUSA’s role in preparing students with disabilities for a successful exchange year.

Author: Megan P

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