Community Inside a Community: Alumni of Exchange Programs at AUBG
AUBG is a home for thousands of bright individuals who have achieved a lot in the past and will continue to accomplish
more in the future. However, most students might not know that there is a whole generation of exchange programs alumni on campus, who spent some time in the United States during their high school years. This experience has greatly influenced their personal development and cultivated many of the passions they still follow at AUBG.
FLEX and A-SMYLE are cultural exchange programs, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, which focus on high school students from Post-Soviet Union countries, along with Serbia and Montenegro. These programs, as well as AUBG, are promoted by the American Councils for International Education, a non-profit organization that opens opportunities for educational development of individuals and institutions around the globe.
Finalists of these exchange programs are granted a chance to go to the U.S. for one academic year, to stay in a local host-family and to attend a regular American high school. The programs are really competitive and the candidates should first prove that they speak English proficiently. However, in the evaluation process, more attention is paid on their personal qualities and strengths.
The majority of the alumni of these exchange programs have learned about AUBG either through promotional events of the American Councils or from their fellow alumni who came to study at the university a few years earlier. FLEX and A-SMYLE students also share that their academic year in the U.S. has greatly influenced their university choice.
“I enjoyed a lot the environment of American education, their freedom to choose in what direction to take their studies, and the ability to mix the curricular and extra-curricular activities in order to create a schedule that would help students develop multilateral,” said Cristina Bujag, a FLEX 2015 alumna from Moldova, and a first-year student at AUBG. “When looking for universities, American liberal-arts ones were among the top of my list.”
“If I didn’t go on FLEX, I would probably gain bachelor’s in my home country, Kazakhstan. But going to America was a big switch for me,” said Aila Baizhomartova, also a FLEX 2015 alumna, and a second-year AUBG student. “On FLEX you become open-minded, flexible, tolerant, and afterwards you’re just so enthusiastic about going on more journeys and finding more traveling opportunities.”
further into the topic of personal growth and character improvement, FLEX and A-SMYLE alumni admit that they have developed many qualities that not only help them in their university career now, but will certainly be beneficial for them in the future. Many of them believe that their communication skills became much stronger due to living in a foreign country and due to interacting with people who had different mentality and traditions.
“I was living in an environment very different from my usual one,” said Daria Maksymenko, FLEX 2014 alumna, and a second-year AUBG student from Ukraine. For her this experience “opened a whole new world.” “I’m no longer afraid of trying new things. I also became more mature, responsible and self-sufficient,” she added.
Maksymenko also mentioned that FLEX changed her opinion on what she wanted to study. Initially, she considered economics and mathematics. However, a meeting with Congress representatives in Washington, D.C. aroused her interest in political science.
FLEX and A-SMYLE students also learned how to get more involved in the community through participating in different clubs and through volunteering. Many of them pursue the passions they developed during their stay in the U.S. at AUBG by taking part in the various clubs and organizations on campus.
“I plan to continue with volunteering and I hope that there will be a lot of ways to help local communities in Bulgaria,” said Bojana Pejkovic, A-SMYLE 2015 alumna from Serbia, and a first-year AUBG student. Moreover, while in the States, she became passionate about folklore dances and was part of a Serbian/Bulgarian folklore group. “Now I joined Samodiva and I am really excited for that,” Pejkovic added.
Aila Baizhomartova completed more than 100 hours of voluntary work in the U.S. and continues to volunteer at AUBG. Currently, she is the secretary of the Better Community Club. The club’s main focus are the social homes in Blagoevgrad, which the members visit to interact and play with kids. This year they also plan to engage in campaigns for clothes and food donation as well as to raise awareness of environmental problems.
Volunteering is an integral part of FLEX and A-SMYLE. Some volunteering activities that exchange students do include tutoring, helping school sports teams, making Christmas and Easter arrangements, assisting in nursing homes, food banks, and many others.
However, to volunteer and to help others are just two of the various traditional American values represented on the campus of AUBG. FLEX and A-SMYLE students noticed that AUBG, for example, keeps a friendly community environment – something that is very common in the U.S.
In regards to academics, the exchange programs alumni enjoy the fact that they can always easily approach their professors, talk to them and get advice. Additionally, the freedom of choosing one’s classes reminds them of their U.S. high schools, though brought to a more serious and demanding level.
Undoubtedly, AUBG is another peak that FLEX and A-SMYLE alumni are climbing on their way to the bright future in front of them. They are trying to make the university a better place during their time here as well as to enjoy everything that the school has to offer.