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The Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) and Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) programs are competitive, merit-based scholarship programs sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.
Over the last ten years, more than 250 students with disabilities from 37 countries have participated these life-changing youth programs.
A line graph showing the total number of FLEX and YES Students with Disabilities, by Year, 2007-2016
Number of FLEX Students with Disabilities, by Year
2007 = 16
2008 = 14
2009 = 12
2010 = 12
2011 = 12
2012 = 14
2013 = 9
2014 = 20
2015 = 11
2016 = 14
At just 16 years old, Ana was so confident that she and her wheelchair would soon be on their way to the U.S., she told practically everyone she knew that she had applied to the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.
Although Ana didn’t make the final selection pool the first time, she tried again a year later.
"When I applied the second time, I didn’t tell anybody except my mom. Most of my family found out that I was going to fly two days before my flight when we had my farewell party. They were shocked!"
Pinar, a Turkish high school student who is blind, received a full scholarship to study abroad on the U.S. Department of State’s Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program. “Of course, my parents were really worried because my safety is important to them. Probably the most important thing!” says Pinar, reflecting on her experience. She lived with an American host family on weekends and stayed on campus at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind during the week.
Melissa Gulledge, CIEE Regional Director from South Carolina, has years of experience placing international exchange students from all over the world with American families, but a last minute decision to host a teenager with a disability led to one of her own family’s most meaningful hosting experiences.
The clock was ticking to match Pinar, a young woman from Turkey who is blind, with a host family and school.
Rebecca Berman is about to achieve a significant milestone: her one-year anniversary working with World Learning is fast approaching. Since learning about the organization's work in international education and development as well as its commitment to disability inclusion, Rebecca knew it would be a good fit for her. Over the past year, she has come to appreciate the importance of finding balance in various aspects of her work.
Working virtually out of Michigan, Juanita is a long way from her supervisor in Colorado and her colleagues operating out of Massachusetts and Texas. Yet, from Juanita's perspective, the collaborative way in which the team works together seems to diminish the distance between them.
"What I really like about my co-workers is that they connect and communicate; they can really relate to people, and honestly that's why I studied abroad with them in the first place."
In Washington, D.C., there is no shortage of international exchange organizations working to promote intercultural understanding and citizen diplomacy, but Sarah Amin was drawn to Cultural Vistas in particular, remarking on their enthusiastic staff who seemed open and flexible to creativity and fresh ideas.
With the busiest season just behind her, Shannon Kelly reflects on the role she and her colleagues played in the experiences of over 2000 students from around the world who arrived in the U.S. this summer through Spirit Cultural Exchange, where Shannon works as an intern:
"These students are thousands of miles away from their families and friends; we're here to be advocates for them."