It has been 15 years since I returned from the FLEX program. Since then I have graduated from university, moved well into my career and become a father. Significant time has passed; we all have seen Russia and the world change in many ways. I have gained a lot of new experience and have grown professionally. But I am still very thankful to the FLEX program and still consider it to be a very important milestone in my life. I am thankful not just for the opportunity to go to the U.S. (and it was indeed a rare opportunity back in 1994) and live there for a year, attend school, and enjoy the fun of it. I am also very thankful for the fact that the FLEX program gave me the chance to become a part of my American family.
My “American parents” as I usually call them in Russian, actually do mean it when they tell others about “their Russian son.” Living with a family on a small horse-farm in rural Virginia was an interesting and welcome change after having been a city-slicker for all 16 years of my life. We found a lot in common with my host-father, David. Cars, trains, doing things together around the farm (and now I know for sure that owning a farm, and even just a house requires you to spend a lot of time on its maintenance and continuous improvements), travelling to various places of interest and visiting relatives. As I wasn’t very close with my real father through my childhood – my parents divorced when I was six – the experience of having an American father was truly invaluable to me. My host-mother, Doris, turned her strict face on me a good number of times during my FLEX year, and even afterwards. But nevertheless – I do realize and deeply appreciate so many parental things she taught and told me, and I certainly know that in her heart she has all the care and concern about my well-being. I haven’t just become a member of my host-family – I was accepted into the bigger family (direct siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles), many of whom really are quite interesting characters and personalities.
I made a lot of friends among the FLEXes both when in the U.S. and afterwards through various alumni activities and networking. I know a number of stories about their not-so-pleasant experiences when not being able to fit into a family and having to change families during the year for one or another reasons. Or simply when after being there for a year the exchange students still remained “guests” for them. And I also know that many FLEX alumni, as they have grown up, lost contact with their host-families.
I’ve been back to the U.S. on numerous occasions after my FLEX year, and every time I cross the ocean I make sure I visit David and Doris in Virginia. They have been to Russia twice so far, but every time we see each other or speak over the phone they tell me they plan on visiting my country again. And I am confident that the efforts I’ve been making to stay in close relations with my American parents over the 15 years since my completion of FLEX are truly rewarding and that I am lucky that even 15 years down the road I have a mother and a father on the other side of the world who would always give me advice and support in case I need it.
This year I was finally able to take my three-year old son and my wife to the States and introduce them to the American side of my bigger family. My little energizer-brat now knows his American grandparents, and I know how touched they were when he promised them to come again when he is a bit older to drive the tractor and paint the fence. And to me it was once again warming to hear the now usual “Welcome home, Andrew!”