Yulia Popyk on multiple exchange experiences and soft power
The second guest of the Exchange Me podcast is Yulia Popyk, an exchange program guru: she took part in FLEX in her high school years (in 2013-2014), Erasmus during her bachelor's degree, and Fulbright for her master's.

Being a young professional, she's already worked as a research assistant to the United States Institute of Peace and a head of international cooperation and partnerships at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future. Yulia is a social media director and also runs a project called Inspired Bags where she promotes correct names of Ukrainian cities (Kyiv not Kiev).

In this podcast, Yulia talks about her exchange experiences and the value of soft power in intercultural relations.
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.
Listen to a recording of this conversation
Yulia Popyk on multiple exchange experiences and soft power
About the exchange program journey

I am a very heavy-lifting exchange alumnus. All of the three exchange programs I took part in brought something new and special to my personal, professional, and physical development.

FLEX was the first step in my exchange program journey. I was based in Central California, in a very small city called Reedley. I was a junior in school there, taking interesting classes that I probably would never study in Ukraine.

The second step was my Erasmus journey, which I did during my Bachelor's degree in political science. I went to Paris for five months. It was purely an academic experience, also intertwined with some new understandings of culture and society.

After that, I finished my master's degree in international relations with the help of the Fulbright program. This third program was the most soothing because I was already a young adult with a clear perception of who I am, where I want to be, and what I want to do.

About getting accepted for FLEX

When I found out about FLEX, I was 13 or 14 years old and living in Vilnius due to my parents' relocation. I found the program online when browsing for free opportunities for kids to study abroad. FLEX was especially interesting for me because I had to travel by night bus from Vilnius to Kyiv for the first and third rounds.

During the third round, I felt that I might get this chance. I think every semi-finalist has this feeling at some point—whether they are in or out. I remember that feeling during the group exercise where we had to propose some idea for a presentation or a project. I remember that everyone became so chaotic and silent at the same time so I felt that I just had to take this in my control, take on the initiative and calm everyone down. My leadership skills popped up and I realized that I actually did pretty well.

About real-life California

When I got the news, I was overexcited about the fact that I'm going to California. Just like any teenager in a post-Soviet country would be. But California happened to be not what you see in Hollywood.

With exchange programs, there usually are a lot of expectations. And what I've learned through these years is that it's better not to build up any.

I was placed with a host family in Central California, which is a very agricultural location in the state. The city where I was living was called a fruit basket of the world. When driving there, you will see all of those fields with apricots or grapes hanging out by the roads. Once I asked my host family or friends if we could stop and take a few just to try them out. I guess it's a Ukrainian mentality thing to do. The answer I heard was no: you can't eat it because it's private property. You can't steal an apricot from private property, people grow them so they can sell them and make money. It's just illegal. In my head, I was thinking that one apricot was not gonna change the kilos or pounds sold on the market. But this is the reality of another mentality, another culture.

About changing host families

As an exchange student coming to the US, you certainly need to rely on some luck that the match with your host family will work. There just isn't always a match, and that's perfectly fine. It doesn't define you as a person, it just means that people are different.

I changed my first family, and the second one wasn't better. I know there were people who changed families two times and the third family was extremely loving and excited to see them. But I was scared to change the family for the second time because I was afraid that people would think that there was something wrong with me or that I was ungrateful.

A very generic but well-explaining reason for the change of the family—troublesome behavior in terms of my privacy. There wasn't a family as such, it was one woman who had grown-up kids who were not living there anymore. It was just me and her in the house. One situation occurred where I just didn't feel very safe. Eventually, I found my second family through my classmate from school. It was her grandparents.

A few years after coming from FLEX, I did spend some time thinking about what happened and why did she and I behave this way. After living in the second family, I realized that there was nothing wrong with the first one.

I came to the point where I realized that I should not blame anyone, or make it harder for myself thinking about it. It just happened, it's life. Everyone got their experience, I got mine.

It was life-changing in a way that you understand that there may not be a match with people.

You come from a different country with a different understanding of certain things. At first, you don't understand Americans and Americans don't understand you. It takes time to learn how to cooperate and coexist.

About finding family in a teacher

The host family is one aspect. The second aspect is high school. I'm very grateful for my high school, and especially for one teacher who was teaching my class in public speaking. She turned my exchange year into a very positive experience. She was there for me. We even created a word for what I would call her: it was something like parent/friend/sister all combined together.

I even saw her and her family two times afterward, when doing my Fulbright. I love her family and I'm friends with her daughters, they're like my younger sisters. Even though I didn't live with them, these people became my exchange family in a sense. My first driving experience was in her husband's car in the field somewhere in California when I was 15. I've never been behind the wheel before and I just asked him to teach me.

About what studying in the US high school feels like

I was a junior even though according to my age, I was supposed to be a sophomore. Somehow I managed to convince my coordinator and school that I had to be a junior. That was a good decision because I felt that I'm mature enough to be a junior.

I really liked it there. The classes were extremely new to me. I took something that I wouldn't take in Ukraine. For example, I didn't take algebra because I could learn it in Ukraine, and I didn't like it. I took a yearbook class where you interview people and take photos of them for the yearbook. Something like journalism. I also took public speaking, US history, and some other classes.

About accent fluctuations

It was definitely challenging at first because of the language. I'm sure that everyone had this issue, where your accent in the beginning is just so heavy that people don't understand you. And with time you just learn a little bit how to change the way you say things. I think that my accent cracked around November.

Three months in the US, and I started feeling that I can speak with an American accent and just say "like" in each sentence.

People still ask me where I am from. But I noticed the difference between my FLEX and Fulbright experience: during FLEX, everyone was always asking if I were from Russia, or Eastern Europe in general. But when I was back during Fulbright, I would offer taxi drivers to guess where I was from. And they would be naming Hungary, Poland, Finland. It just shows that I'm slowly moving to Western :)

About the Revolution of dignity and rooting for Ukraine from America

The Revolution of dignity happened in Ukraine the year when I was in the US. So I came from one Ukraine and I returned to another Ukraine.

When I came to the US, the one and probably only question that my classmates or even older people were asking me was if Ukraine was Russia. Obviously, that hurt me a lot. There was a lot of internal struggle in me because I had to fight for Ukraine on a very small American level. On a level of touching the hearts of Reedley people in California and explaining who we are and what is happening in Ukraine. I remember I even made a poster with encouragement to tweet that Crimea is Ukraine.

The fact that I was in the US while the revolution was happening did affect my understanding of civil society and the power of international relations, even if it's just talking to people from outside explaining who we are. So it comes naturally that I chose a path of international relations.

About the concept of soft power

During my Fulbright year at Syracuse University, I participated in the local TEDx event representing my school, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. My topic was the art of soft power.

Soft power is a way for countries to attract people without waging wars or giving economic incentives.

Basically, it means winning the hearts and minds of other people by cultural diplomacy tricks.

During my Erasmus exchange, which happened two years before Fulbright, I had an amazing course in the university basically dedicated to soft power. We had 12 weeks of classes where we read about all sorts of soft power tricks that Korea, South Africa, Latin American countries, and others used to make people like them. That course affected me very much. When I was on FLEX, I was trying to make people like Ukraine, so the concept of soft power really speaks to me.

The conclusion to which I came is that we—you and me—are soft power, and people who will be listening to us, who are related to exchange programs—they all are the soft power of their country.

But the thing is, each exchange program is also a soft power trick of another country. The American government invests money in things like FLEX and Fulbright for us to like the US and become attracted to American culture and society. I'm pretty sure that it works 95% of the time. And when we, as exchange students, come to another country, we ourselves become the politics.

A lot of everyday things like the Polish Institute, Goethe Institute, or British Council in Ukraine are aimed at interaction with another country. By helping us learn their language and inviting us to their cultural events, countries use their soft power and make us the object of everyday politics.

I'm approaching soft power academically in a way that it's just not enough in the reality of modern international relations, where countries are still somehow striving to be supportive of each other. In my TEDx speech, I also mentioned that Russia's soft power such as ballet, cuisine, or history is not enough compared to what they do in the conflict zones they are engaged in.

It's very important for a country to understand its soft power potential and how to use it.

Ukrainian society is divided by generations right now, the generations who saw the Soviet Union grew up in a very different mentality. We have to acknowledge that. Younger generations, on the other hand, as well as former FLEX exchange students are definitely very adaptable, very soft power-ish. They are representing this country and we can be optimistic about that.

Recommendations to future participants

First of all, make research: research everything possible about the program, country, or institution. If it fits your values, your general hopes and expectations, go for it. The second thing may sound simple: just listen to your intuition and heart, because your gut feeling very often tells you whether this is the right move or not.

Plus, I definitely would recommend not having super high expectations. Don't wait for something extraordinary to happen, like going to Hollywood every weekend. It's just not going to happen, folks, I'm sorry.

Summary of tips from Yulia:


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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.