Vitalii Deputat on the invaluable impact of FLEX and "accidental" immigration to Canada
The first guest of the Exchange Me podcast, FLEX alumnus Vitalii Deputat shares how much the exchange program changed him and how he immigrated to Canada.

Vitalii took part in the program back in 2001, going to Denver, Colorado, and studying at Chatfield High School. He's a media buyer by profession and, as he calls himself, an immigrant by accident.
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What is FLEX (Future Leaders Exchange Program)? One goes to the United States for an academic year, lives with a host family, attends a local high school, and, basically, gets to know the culture and live the American life. The program is highly competitive—around 2% get in. When you become a finalist, the program covers everything: from the tickets to the US insurance and the monthly allowance. FLEX was created from the belief of the former Senator Bill Bradley that the best way to ensure long-lasting peace and mutual understanding is through exchange programs like this.
Vitalii Deputat on the invaluable impact of FLEX and "accidental" immigration to Canada
About getting accepted at the second attempt

Back in the time, I was studying in the Cherkasy First City Gymnasia, and the Freedom Support Act was something that was always discussed a lot. There was no way you couldn't know about the FLEX program, especially in your senior years. Whoever felt confident with their English skills could try their luck.

I made the first attempt when I was in grade nine; then I made it to the third round. I wrote the essay, submitted it, but didn't make it to the final. Next year, I tried again. And that worked. I was actually blessed with teachers, and the version of the essay that has got me accepted was born under the supervision of my English teacher.

The takeaway that I wanted to share is, take it seriously.

Try to show as much as you can that you are a mature individual who can be trusted, who will not be a troublemaker but will be going to the States for knowledge and experience. And the only way for the reviewers to get to know you and to get to know a little bit more about your personality is through your essay. So that thing is hugely important.

Also, the prospective host family will read this essay and assess the entire application. You see, I even forgot that. If you are not taking it seriously, you will not sound convincing and will not be selected in the end. So imagine like you're talking to the host family, to the reviewers. I know it's very hard when you're 15 or 16 years old because you're still a child, in essence. But just do your best.

About the excitement of getting in

I do remember the call from the American Councils. 20 years passed and there are several highlights from that experience that I do remember, and one of them was that call. I was very excited, to say the least.

For a moment, I felt like I was a winner that made it first in the race. And then, when you hang up, you realize this series of changes that are going to happen in your life over the next year, and it's just overwhelming. It's nothing like what you have experienced before. Certain things you cannot even foresee or think about or get afraid of or get excited about.

It was a lot harder on the parents because they had their own internal struggles.

They had to not only let go but also have very limited contact with their child. It's a very hard decision and it takes a lot of courage and love to let each child go and live with the family that you have never met, seen, or talked to. But then it's all worth it in the end.

About the hardships of the exchange experience

There wasn't such a thing as a cultural shock for me, as much as getting accustomed to the English of the real world, the spoken, colloquial language. It's very different from what you hear in classrooms and what you read in books. Plus, there were a fair number of unknown words. I spent several months writing out every single word I didn't know into a notepad and then I looked up that every single word. That expanded my vocabulary a lot, I recommend that everyone does that.

I remember having serious headaches at the end of the school day, but after several months, things straightened out a bit. Everything became a lot easier, a lot more understandable, and just more enjoyable.

The second thing I had to deal with is obviously homesickness. It's the first time when you're getting pulled out of the family for an extended period of time. And essentially it's your problem to deal with.

I think I would have dealt with it differently now.

But back then I was more leaning into self-isolation. But this was a temporary thing that happened around December or November. Only now have I realized that with the lack of sunshine, you get the seasonal affective disorder. And it really aggravates all the problems and issues that you have. When we started getting more sun, I was feeling less and less homesick and things started looking good. Now I understand that this big, shiny bubble over there does have an impact.

About the differences in education systems

In this part of the world it's generally believed that the system of education in North America is weaker than what we have in post-Soviet countries. But they're just different.

Speaking of math, for example, the materials that are covered in grade 10 in the US school is something that kids in Ukraine covered like a year or two before. So when you end up in the US school, everyone thinks you're a genius, but you're not because you have simply covered all that material before. It contributes to the myth that Ukrainians are super smart and know everything, but it's not necessarily true.

Another thing is that the school is an academic institution that teaches you stuff and also a social institution that teaches you how to socialize and builds your personality. Our system of education seems to be geared more towards the academic component. While what I see in North American schools is that they are focused more on building your character. I'm able to make that comparison not only by my FLEX experience but also by watching how my kids are studying at a Canadian school.

They're being taught things that our system of education simply doesn't teach.

For instance, a couple of days ago, my kid was told the basics of investing and financial literacy. It's not like calculus or advanced geometry that they teach you at school here, but it's just different. North American schools are more geared towards building the social aspect of your life. And then if you need an academic component, you simply go to college or university.

About getting back to Ukraine, studying at the uni, and starting a career

When you come back to Ukraine, you have two options. Option number one is to retake the entire year and, thus, lose a year. Option number two is to take all the classes, take the exams, and graduate the way it's designed (if you somehow manage through sleepless nights to catch up with the curriculum). I chose the latter way. The drawback of that was that I lost the gold medal. So that didn't give me any privilege during the application and enrollment process. But since I knew I was going to study and learn foreign languages, I didn't have any problems with it.

While a freshman at the university, I was too overwhelmed with what was going on and was just doing my best to adjust and not fail all the classes. I was only able to start working around my third year. I focused exclusively on my studies for the first couple of years.

When I started working, I was doing translations. Actually, I have several books under my translation. I also worked during the 2004 election, the Orange Revolution. I worked as a translator with the observation missions, and essentially that's how my career started.

The Orange Revolution was an attempt to break out from the USSR legacy and to become more Western-oriented.

I think one of the reasons that the FLEX program exists is to show how the Western world works, how democracy works, and how different institutions work. After the program, obviously, the western standards are closer to you mentally than the Soviet Union. But it was very hard to objectively assess what was going on because, I think, I was still a kid. I wasn't politically active but I supported, and still support, that movement because the impact that the Soviet Union has had on the minds of people is just too detrimental. People still think that the state should take care of them, which is not the case. You're in charge of your own life. With that thought in mind, you don't expect anyone to take care of you, except for yourself. And it might seem harsh to some people, but this is a very accurate and realistic statement to live with.

About moving to Canada out of curiosity

A person who I know posted in her timeline, suggesting to fill out a form and check eligibility to come to Canada. Honestly, I did it out of boredom. It was a winter afternoon and I didn't feel like doing anything. The possibility was meant for certain skill sets and certain professions and I was lucky enough to be on that list. In about seven months—it's called "express entry for a reason"—we got our visas, and right upon landing we got our permanent residence card. That's how our Canadian life started.

Whenever I'm speaking about that episode in my life, I'm telling everyone that I'm an immigrant by accident. There are several kinds of emigration:

  • people immigrate trying to find a better life
  • or to escape from hardships or depressions

In my case, I emigrated more out of curiosity: I wanted to explore the world. Also, I wanted my kids to see more of the world.

The impact that FLEX has had on my life is just tremendous.

It really expanded my horizons and how I perceive things in general. I wanted my kids to go through the same thing. So when the opportunity presented itself, I didn't hesitate. At that moment, we had moved into the newly built house, a very good and comfortable one. Obviously, my wife was shocked when she first heard the news, but then she embraced it. We ended up selling the house and moving to Canada. Actually, I don't think I'm confined to Canada. I'm still attracted to Ukraine, to Cherkasy, and I wouldn't be surprised if, in 10 years from now I find myself back here with all the experience and knowledge that I accumulated.

About getting a job in Canada

The moment that you land in Canada, you're on your own. I landed two months prior to my family, just to be able to find a job and an apartment that we would live in. It took me three weeks to find a job at a local marketing agency. It took a lot of effort, research, and persistence. I approached it in a scientific way: I searched for the job openings, rolled them out in an Excel sheet, and made notes. I had a big list of job openings and was methodically going through them until I found the place where I was hired. Everything worked very smoothly: two agencies ended up competing for me, which was pretty delightful. Now, I've reached a point where I'm jumping off: I started my own company last year.

Recommendations to future participants

Whenever you see on someone's profile that they are FLEX alumni, it is a likely sign of—I don't want to say a secret society,—but some sort of a fraternity. It tells me that we've been through the same thing, shared the same experience and, possibly, values. This helps to build new connections. Once I signed a contract with the client, and all of a sudden, it turned out that they had a team member who was also a FLEX alumnus.

This cooperation was taken on to the next level, with a whole different level of trust and understanding, because we've been through the same thing.

I think I'm in a unique position when it comes to giving recommendations because most of the details have faded away. For everyone, the experience will be unique. However, one general thing that I would like to emphasize is just participating in this program, and more broadly, in any program that you can get your hands on. The impact that it will have on your life and your thinking is just huge. And the trick with it is that you will realize it years after.

I highly recommend everyone who can physically get into the program that they do it. If you fail the first time, you will definitely have more chances and more luck the next time. If you fail the second time, get back to the books and brush up on your skills, and you will make it at your third attempt. The cycle repeats until you finally make it. I do believe that these opportunities need to be taken. You don't have to be rich to travel abroad; there's plenty of grants and programs to participate in. By all means, do.

Summary of tips from Vitalii:

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This episode is supported by the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy to Ukraine. The views of the authors and guests do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Government.