Yevheniya Vodopyanova on cheerleader and volunteer experience as a FLEX student
Today's guest of the Exchange Me podcast is Yevheniya Vodopyanova, FLEX alumnus of 2011. She went to high school in Michigan, became part of the cheerleader team, and got to do lots of volunteer work during her academic year.

Currently, Yevheniya works at the American Councils as the Program Coordinator for FLEX Exchanges to Internships, helping young generations learn more about the public sector and gain experience in ministries and city councils across Ukraine.

In this podcast, Yevheniya talks about the brightest moments of her exchange year and the insights she gained during that time.
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.
Yevheniya Vodopyanova on cheerleader and volunteer experience as a FLEX student
About getting the call from American Councils

When my English teacher told me about the FLEX testing, I didn't even know what it was and didn't think about it seriously. But then I searched for more information and by the third round of testing, I was quite serious, concentrated and, of course, extremely nervous.

When I got the call, I knew immediately that it was going to be about FLEX because I looked at the phone and saw the city code of Kyiv. When I learned that I was selected as the FLEX finalist, I just froze for a second. Hearing about the news, my dad did a happy winner's dance, while he's the kind of person who doesn't express his emotions very freely. By the time I finished the conversation, my dad called every single relative across the whole world, telling them that I would be going to the United States.

Now, when I am able to actually call the participants and say that they became the finalists, that's actually the happiest day at the American Councils office in Kyiv.

About travelling to the US

I do remember the day I had a flight to the US because it was the first time I travelled abroad. I took thousands of photos of different forms of the sky, clouds, and food on the plane. It was funny to look through those photos later.

After we came to Washington, DC, I travelled to Chicago, and then to Green Bay in Michigan. That was the place where my host family picked me up. When I was exiting the airport, I saw a lady and two girls holding a poster with bright yellow letters saying "Zhenia welcome" or something like that. I was so shocked: honestly, until that minute, I thought that it was all a dream. That the curtain would just be open and the camera guys would be saying that it was all staged.

On the first day, I had jet lag and was falling asleep, but my host mom decided that we needed to do a tiny little town tour. Plus, there was a language barrier at the beginning. They kept asking the questions a lot of times, and I understood pretty much everything that they were saying but was unable to express the whole spectrum of the emotions that I was having.

About the cultural shock

I'm originally from Zaporizhia, and the population there is close to 1 million people. While my hometown in America had 2,000 people in total. That was quite a difference. Not a lot of things were happening around. Another thing is that every single person drives a car, while I was used to getting to different destinations by walking and exploring the town. Here, everything was located on such a long distance in between.

There's a saying that if you want to change your life, you need to travel somewhere and have a fresh start. That's what actually happened to me because I was new to the whole community.

The cultural shock was quite big on me for the first two weeks in the United States. I could barely speak English because I was so surprised with everything. Everything is so different, the food, the weather, the people.

I travelled earlier than the others, due to the fact that my host family wanted me to join their family gathering on Lake Michigan. There were 20+ people on that family retreat, and everyone was so excited to talk to me. My host mom did the most detailed work: she gave me the instructions including what are the names of all of the kids and who are they related to. I drew a family tree so that I could understand who is who. It was actually the first time I saw such a big group of people all related to one another, because I'm the only child in the family. Having a big family was something completely new for me.

It was amazing for me to arrive earlier because when the school started in September, I was already more confident in my English. I spent one month with my host sisters just exploring the town and talking to other people.

About rediscovering winter

Michigan was not my top choice because of the weather. I'm not a very winter person, and we got tonnes of snow there. It started snowing in September, and in May, when I had my prom, we still had some puddles of snow. But it was beautiful. I got to see it from a different angle.

My host family taught me how to ski because we had a ski resort 10 minutes away from our house. Also, I got to see a deer coming to our house just for a winter walk. I got to see a wonderful winter when it's all covered with snow. I got to experience the snow day when the school was cancelled because no one can get out of the house, and we would spend time with my host sisters watching movies, making popcorn, and playing a dancing queen kind of thing in the basement.

All the things that you discover throughout your personal path are for good. They change you and transform you to a better person. You gain that understanding that it doesn't have to be exactly the way you wanted.

As long as you can get something good out of the things that you are given, then you're doing the right thing.

About the "inconvenient" birthday time

I did experience homesickness during the winter time. My birthday is on the 26th of December, and in American lifestyle, it is right after Christmas, so it's not so convenient. For Christmas celebration, we went to Grand Rapids, a big town located in the lower peninsula of Michigan. I lived in the upper peninsula on the border with Canada and we had to drive for six or seven hours down the state to meet the relatives for Christmas.

We had to go back on the 26th of December. So I got a cupcake with a candle early in the morning when I could barely navigate myself, and then we jumped into the car and had to travel. But later that day, our neighbours and friends got together, we had a family dinner at the restaurant, and I got a bunch of presents. Later that week, I was able to have a sleepover with all of my friends and actually celebrate.

About training and travelling with the cheerleader team

There's a stereotype that all of the cheerleaders are just pretty girls who are popular in high school, that they barely do any workouts or train for the competition. It is not true. When I got to the gym with all of the girls to have a workout, I was so impressed. They were doing, I would say, a beginner level of CrossFit. The workout is pretty intense, and you have to be strong to do all of the stands and jumps and make sure that you're not going to hurt yourself or anyone else.

It was amazing to see that some of the information that I knew before was not completely true.

I was able to later share this knowledge with people here who thought that cheerleaders were just about a pretty face. It's a lot of work and a lot of devotion to the thing that you do.

I'm very happy that I was able to join the team. We travelled with the American football team to different towns, then we also did some trips with the basketball team. That was a lot of fun. We had that yellow school bus, and all of the players and girls were there together, fooling around and playing bus games and just talking. That was something to remember because we tried to motivate all of the players to compete and beat the other team. I cherish those moments and I'm still in touch with some of my teammates.

About the joy of volunteering

The most memorable things and the brightest moments were partially connected with the volunteer work. We had a lot of activities for the families and a lot of fundraisers. One of the things that I enjoyed was running a 5k marathon together with my host family, raising money for people who needed shelter. By the end of the race, they had a mud puddle kind of thing and you had to actually crawl in the mud. I imagined myself being a special services agent who had to go through a lot of obstacles. It was very fun.

The second one that I enjoyed was organising a black light dance. It was a fundraiser and school dance to raise money for the Coal Foundation that supports kids who are battling with cancer. We were able to connect small businesses across the whole town, our high school members, a lot of printing services, and just tonnes of people to organise this event. We made t-shirts that were glowing in the dark—that's why it was called a black light dance. We also wrote letters of support to the kids in the hospitals, which was wonderful as well.

I just enjoyed doing volunteer work so much that later I obtained the President's Volunteer Service Award, which meant that I spent over 100 volunteering hours.

I didn't do that for the award. I volunteered because my host family was encouraging me and they showed that this was cool and amazing by their own personal example.

I cooked meals together with my host dad to fundraise money, we did a lot of donations at our local church, and so on. Volunteering was a part of the lifestyle.

About gaining weight during the exchange year

I gained 15 kilos throughout the whole year. I remember that the first time we went for ice cream with my host family, I ordered a baby cup. It's even smaller than the small size and I could not finish it. I was not ready for those portions. And by the end of the year, I was able to finish the medium.

Remember that you're there just for one academic year. It's going to be quite a disappointment not to try the things that you've never tried before, different cuisines, and even the fast food, especially since they have their local ones in every single state. Just balance it all with the activity and it's going to be fine.

That was my main thought behind all of the weight gain: I'm here just for this particular time so I will try everything and just mix all the guilty pleasures with a lot of sports.

About life after FLEX and current mission at American Councils

After FLEX, your exchange student life is not going to end. Back home, you have an amazing alumni community. Every single time when I meet someone new and we find out that both of us are FLEX alumni, it's an instant connection. Having an alumni community is also about having a vast pool of opportunities.

Right now, I work as the Program Coordinator for FLEX Exchanges to Internships. It's a paid internship for FLEX alumni who are currently either involved in the university or are recent graduates interested in learning more about our government and the public sector. This program lasts for three months, in partnership with a lot of Ukrainian ministries and city councils. The program is fully funded by the Embassy of the United States and administered by American Councils.

I do believe that there are a lot of bright and talented people who are interested in making a change in our country, and such projects help them do so.

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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.