Olga Shyshman on FLEX values and dealing with hardships
Today's guest of the Exchange Me podcast is Olga Shyshman, FLEX alumna of 2003. She went to high school in Redmond, Washington, and had to change the host family four times.

In this podcast, Olga unpacks her FLEX experience and the way it transformed her, talks about her interest in sports, career path, and volunteering to help refugees from Donetsk.
Listen to a recording of this conversation
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.
Olga Shyshman on FLEX values and dealing with hardships
About going to FLEX

I come from the city of Poltava. We had a really strong English level in our school and FLEX was really well known. When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I already knew that I would take part in FLEX later. The first time I tried, it wasn't successful: I went through the testing and the interview but wasn't selected. It was disappointing but the support of my teachers encouraged me to redo my essay and try one more time. I didn't need any help with English but I had to become more mature to believe more in myself. And the second time, I was selected for the program.

After I returned from the US, my younger brother went to FLEX as well. With him, it was much easier on my parents because I went there and nothing bad happened. My father had doubts about letting me go there: he was afraid that another society and another family would change me and maybe force some values on me that are not shared in Ukraine. But at the end of the day, he understood that it was a lifetime opportunity for me.

About being selected but not getting the call about it

A girl from my class got a phone call from American Councils and was notified that she was going to the United States, while I didn't get a phone call. I just decided to be proactive and call them myself. I was thinking that if I wasn't going, I would be fine and switch my mind to university preparation. But when I called them, they told me that I was selected. I couldn't believe it at first, but it was true.

About changing four host families

My first host family consisted of an English-speaking dad and the immigrants from Odesa who had just come to the United States a couple of years ago. They were learning English themselves and sometimes I spoke to them in Russian or Ukrainian. Since it's not allowed in the program to stay with a Russian-speaking family for a long time, I moved to the house of my coordinator, Janelle Gregson, after three weeks. After a few more weeks, they found a host family for me, and I stayed with them until spring. Then, for some reason, they decided that it was too hard for them to have an exchange student, maybe because their kids were really young at that time. Or, maybe this experience was not how they imagined it to be.

It was a big shock for me: when you go to FLEX, you expect that you will have one family and build relationships with its members. It's hard when you're 17 years old, have just a couple of months left to stay there in the United States, and people tell you that you should move and change all your logistics. But now I'm glad it turned out this way. I really bonded with the fourth host family and they even came to visit me in Ukraine a year later.

Now I know that if somebody is not accepting me, it doesn't mean I'm bad. It's just that I'm not in the right time and place.

About the host family visiting Ukraine

The last host family came both to Kyiv and Poltava, and it was a really amazing experience for them. In Poltava, I lived close to the suburbs: it was an apartment building, but from the windows, we could see goats going around. It really surprised them. They were also amused to see that we can have a couch and sit on it during the day and sleep on it at night. They said that they learned how you can be happier without having a lot of stuff.

About surprising things and extracurricular activities in the American school

It was interesting for me that schools are separated and you don't have the first and 11th grades together, as we do in Ukraine. As for the language, it was not difficult for me to understand or speak English but it was difficult to understand what other kids were talking about. Back then, we didn't have smartphones with the Internet to google anything right away and understand what movies, songs, and other things they were talking about.

What I advise future FLEX students is to read more about what's popular with American teenagers.

What was really different is that we didn't have 15 subjects as we do in Ukraine, but just six subjects, including physical training and arts. I was surprised that all extracurricular activities were available right in the school. In Ukraine, I trained for volleyball for a long time, and I had to travel through all the city to go to the sports school. But in the United States, everything was in school so you could take whatever you want.

I wanted to be on the volleyball team and I had no doubt that I would be accepted. But after the tryout, I was told that I was not making it to either varsity or junior team. I still don't know why, maybe my level was not as good as I thought of it, or maybe the reason was that the team would lose a player in a year.

They suggested that I try cross country—it's long-distance running. And running was never one of my strengths, I was never fond of it. But I understood that I had to do some activities just to meet more people and see how sports are organized in the United States. When I started with cross country, I couldn't finish this 5K run. But we had training sessions almost every day and after a few months, I got really good results. The coach said that I'm really talented in running, which I never knew. I even qualified for some competitions on the state level.

I advise everybody who likes sports to try it in the United States. It's really well organized there and it's a really good chance to make friends and actually talk to people more.

About deciding to retake 11th grade

After FLEX, I went to 11th grade again. I decided to do this to have more time to prepare for the university entrance exams. In the United States, I wanted to experience everything to the fullest and not think about the exams.

The world is now changing—we're not in a hurry anymore, it's not that you absolutely have to graduate until you're 17.

About what FLEX has taught her

I think whatever circumstances bring you, you should never give up. After FLEX, I've had different disappointments. For example, during the crisis of 2009, I couldn't find work. I graduated from the university and already had a lot of experience. It didn't turn out as easy as I expected but I also knew that everything was going to be fine.

This is what FLEX really taught me: when I face some hardships, I don't get depressed but stay positive.

When you're 17 years old, traveling to another country without your family and without the Internet, it changes you a lot: you will resist better with what life brings you. Even now, when it's been many years since I was there, I still think of how FLEX changed me and even kept changing me after I returned.

About taking refugees from Donetsk to live with her

I was actively participating in the Maidan revolution. After the war started in Eastern Ukraine, different organizations were looking for volunteers to take refugees from Donetsk to live with them until they integrate into life in Kyiv.

I decided to participate in this program. A lot of people thought that I was crazy, trusting some I didn't know. My husband understood me and we trusted the people from Donetsk that we met. They lived with us for two months. This is about being flexible: what seems crazy to other people was normal to me—I really wanted to help those people in some way. And I did help because their life had changed completely

About her transitions throughout a career

After I graduated, I started working as a receptionist at Oracle, a famous software company. I worked there only for a year, and after this, a colleague from Oracle transitioned to SAP to be the country manager and invited me to be his personal assistant. I worked there for three and a half years. It was really challenging, I was preparing a lot of presentations, writing speeches for the general manager, and doing a lot of other work. The job of a personal assistant is somewhat isolated, and I really wanted to work in the department where you have your colleagues around. So I moved into the business operations department. After a year and a half, I went on maternity leave. And then, I returned to the position of Bid and Proposal Manager. Finally, three years ago, I changed my place of work to Dell Technologies. Now I work in partner departments, helping accelerate sales.

About working at Dell

At Dell, we have resource groups, which are some volunteer activities that you can do during your work time. I'm in the group called Women in Action: it's aimed to support women in IT and sales professions. The company has a goal of reaching 50% of women as their workforce and 40% of women in leadership positions.

I'm really happy to work for this company because of its diversity and inclusion—which are FLEX values as well.


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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.