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Sowing seeds far from home

Thu., April 30, 2009

FLEX gives foreign students hands-on experience

Representing five different high schools and hailing from four countries, the eight teens planting trees at the Turnbull Wildlife Refuge last week all had one thing in common: They weren’t afraid of a little dirty work.

“I’m actually enjoying this,” said Lida Minasyan, a 16-year-old Armenian exchange student from University High School. Minasyan and two others in the volunteer entourage were part of the Future Leaders Exchange, a federal program that provides scholarships for students from countries of the former Soviet Union to spend a year attending high school in the U.S.

As part of their grant, students in the program must complete 40 hours of community service. To fulfill part of this requirement and to celebrate Earth Day and Arbor Day, Minasyan and her FLEX cohorts planted about 30 deciduous trees at the refuge. She said they asked the other exchange students to help out because, “as you can see, this is too many trees for just us.”

The field trip was set up by Merle Barr, who had arranged a host family for each of the eight teens at the start of the school year. She’s been placing students for about 25 years as area representative for the Center for Cultural Exchange, a national nonprofit student exchange organization.

Barr and her family have also hosted their fair share of students over the years. “It kind of started by accident,” she said. “When a friend asked if we could host a Danish girl for a few months we said ‘sure.’ The experience went so well we figured one more time couldn’t hurt, and it turned into 18 more times.”

Also present Thursday was David Scott, host parent of 16-year-old Yekaterina “Kate” Mishehenko, a Russian FLEX student who attends University. Scott said his family has so far hosted six exchange students. “It’s a great way to expose our own kids to other cultures; to show them that there are other people in the world besides Americans,” Scott said.

Mishehenko called the FLEX program “a little dream” and that it has helped her grow at a much quicker pace than she may have back home.

“Schools here are different in so many ways,” she said, citing the vast array of sports and after-school programs offered. “When I go home I’m sure I’ll see how much I’ve learned.”

Ilya Volobuyev, a Russian FLEX student who attends Central Valley, said that he too has grown a lot in the past year. “It’s a big experience, not just to learn English, but to mature and to make choices for myself while I’m so far from my parents,” he said.

The FLEX students were awarded the scholarship after a multi-level, merit-based competition. According to a FLEX brochure, only 20 percent of initial applicants make it to the final round and approximately one in 30 of the initial applicants are ultimately selected.

Barr said that she’s been bringing exchange students to the refuge for the past four years. “Especially for the FLEX kids, volunteering isn’t very popular in their home countries,” she said. “We try to teach them about the U.S. way of life while they’re here, about volunteerism and ecology.”

Matthias Hansal, a 17-year-old German student at Ferris, said he’s learned a great deal, but that he’s also looking forward to seeing home again. “Merle is a great coordinator,” he said. “She’s open and there whenever we need her which is very important because we’re so far from home.”

Reach correspondent Ryan Lancaster by e-mail at

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