By Lida Asilyan ’19 (Ijevan, Armenia / Adel, IA) 

Zhanna Atanesyan ’21 (Gyumri, Armenia / Midland, MI) participated in the FLEX program in 2020-2021, meaning that her FLEX experience took place online. In this interview, Zhanna shares how her experiences as a participant in the online program impacted her and why she decided to become a City Representative after completing the exchange. 

What did the virtual program give you? 

The biggest gift for me was the FLEX family our cluster created. I cherish and value them the most. Another great opportunity I appreciated was the seminars two to three times a week that were great opportunities to meet new people, share our wisdom, and learn from others. I met a lot of people during “Better Understanding for a Better World” (BUBW) seminars and gained friends from all around the world; there is maybe no country in which I don’t have a friend now. I have learned a lot about cultural differences and it helped me to feel more connected to the world, think about problems outside the world, and feel like a world citizen. Finally, my “host” family was one of the most important gifts from the program.  

Tell us about your host family. How did you spend time together online? 

I was virtually hosted by the Burns family. I had host parents and two siblings. I also met their Spanish exchange student whom they hosted before me. Although our interactions took place online, we decided that it was not only the program that connected us. I was soulmates with my host mom and we came up with ideas, recipes that we didn’t make before. Once a month we cooked something together (and we do it even now, even though the online program is over). They taught me how to cook pork ribs, potato fries, and some salads. We exchanged recipes, so I taught them how to cook dolma. I also gave presentations about Armenia to them about our traditions. We celebrated Christmas, Easter, and one of my favorite holidays – Halloween – together. 

My most favorite memory from the online exchange was when we first met one another. We all were super excited. They are a perfect example of a family for me, and I want to build such a family for myself in the future. The experience I had with them also made me appreciate my own family; maybe it is different, but it is mine, and I need to work at making it better. What my host family has and built did not come in a second; they worked for it. And I want to work for it too.  

What was the most valuable thing you learned from the online program? 

You need to be flexible no matter what. It is not about being flexible in America, but during the online program as well. We didn’t expect our year would be online, but we overcame it, showing how flexible we can be. This flexibility helps me almost everywhere, in my family, and even in my job. The job that I currently have at the SelfStartUSA program is aimed at helping other students understand what they want to study in the United States. Sometimes, they don’t understand what they really want to do and it is hard to find the spark in them. So, flexibility helps me adjust to their needs and come up with creative solutions.  

Why did you choose to become a City Representative of Gyumri? 

It was a unique opportunity for me because when the students go to the United States they cannot compare it with the current life in Armenia. When you see something online that happens in the U.S., you compare it to Armenia immediately. It helps me to find the real problems and try to work on them right away.  

When I found out there was an opportunity to apply for the position of a CR, I decided to apply because we have real problems in my community. One of them was a lack of education. I saw how teachers in the U.S. motivate students and how enthusiastic they are about their jobs, helping students to understand what they want to do in the future. We don’t have something like that, and I decided that it would be my mission as a CR. So, most of the projects I did were somehow connected to education. For example, I helped students to prepare for interviews, and to understand how the education they get will help them in many aspects. I gave presentations about FLEX to expand the network and encourage more students to apply. I tried to gather as many students as possible, and in the end, there were around 50 students from all five schools around. I was happy to see so many students.  

Also, I still want to help the students who come from socially vulnerable backgrounds. I am also a student who comes from a socially vulnerable family. Sometimes, it was even hard to find something to write on. When I saw kids who felt 100% like me, I decided that I could help them. I collected resources for these kids, telling them about the program, motivating them to study. I study at the most expensive university in Armenia, so these children didn’t know about it. Most of them thought they would end up in poverty, so I gave them hope. Also, I gave them my number and they called me to ask questions about biology, mathematics, and that’s great. Not everybody has money for a tutor, so they have me.  

What excited you most about the alumni community? What has been your favorite event so far? 

I love how we are always connected. When I know a certain person is involved with FLEX, I already feel like I know them. I feel a connectedness, and nothing else is important. My most favorite event was a Christmas Potluck Party in which I met 20-25 FLEX alumni. After talking to them, I understood how ambitious they are, and we motivate each other to do great things. FLEX program finds people who are just amazing!  

I thought when I finished the program I would simply be done, but then I saw the active community. It was very exciting. Our community is very supportive. Whenever I organize something, I always know there are FLEX alumni who will help.  

If you had a chance to talk in front of the whole FLEX alumni community, what would your message be to them? 

Being a FLEX student is a huge responsibility, and it does not end by coming back to our countries. We need to remember that we are more than exchange students. We are the leaders who want to change the world around us. However, changes do not come when we are inactive; they happen when we all fight and fall all over again. I encourage all FLEX students to remember that we are here for a reason and make this world a better place for everyone.