Azerbaijan International

Summer 2000 (8.2)
Pages 11-12

Reader's Forum
Student Exchange Selection - Where's the Integrity?

Three years ago my family and I became aware for the first time that there was such a program as the Freedom Support Act Secondary School Exchange Program, often referred to as the FLEX or ''Bradley'' Program. We, as citizens of the newly independent state of Azerbaijan, were sincerely impressed by the generosity of the USA, that it would care, not only for its own youth, but for those from the former "Evil Empire," as President Ronald Reagan used to refer to those of us who lived in the former Soviet Union.

My young daughter waited impatiently for her 15th birthday so that she could get the chance to apply to study abroad. We knew that there would be many contenders and prepared ourselves for disappointment in not being chosen.

But the way the selection process was carried out, not only in regard to my own daughter but for many other children from families that we know, has made me decide to make my complaints known in the mass media.

On Friday, April 7, the finalists were named. Our daughter spent two sleepless nights anticipating the announcement. Out of about 150 semi-finalists from Azerbaijan, 55 were chosen. My daugher was not among them. The problem is that most of young people, including my daughter, were never given any explanation as to why they were inferior to those who were chosen as finalists. As a result, I saw how much they suffered from such insensitivity. They cried for days.

My older daughter, seeking to console her younger sister, made contact with ACCELS, the organizer of the program, in Washington, seeking an explanation. How surprised we were when we learned our daughter had been turned down because she had expressed great expectations at the chance of studying in the US; and therefore, ACCELS had concluded, she would have tried to stay in the US permanently. We were shocked by the absurdity of what they told us. In addition, they said her application showed so much maturity that it was impossible that she had filled it out herself. This, again, was absolutely untrue.

To add insult to injury, what followed completely ruined our trust in the selection process. We soon received a call from an Azerbaijan representative of Youth For Understanding (YFU) offering to send our daughter to the U.S. for a year's study if we paid $7,500.

So my family was devastated again. It became clear that my daughter had not really been refused because she might have chosen to stay in the US or because her application form was "too good" but rather due to other reasons. When we asked the Washington representative to explain how confidential information about a15-year-old girl (home address and phone number) had been given to absolute strangers (YFU), he passed us off to others and we soon learned that the people making the decision about the ACCELS program (a free education program) were really employed by YFU (a program that advocated paying for education). But is this not a conflict of interests that they are entrusted in the selection of children for a free education project if they are themselves trying to promote a paid program and have access to the applications beforehand?

Let me explain further. My daughter totally filled out the forms herself and she did so as fully and as honestly as she knew how. Perhaps, that was her downfall. She noted that we had visited London last year (a trip that was made possible only because my older daughter works there and paid for the trip). The YFU may have gotten the impression that our family was well-off and that if my daughter was denied the chance to qualify as a finalist, we would agree to pay $7,500 to get her into the YFU program. But this is discrimination, and it has become clear that many children along with their parents have been affected by such discrimination every year.

If we, the citizens of a country where the average monthly wage is $40, had such great amounts of money, why would we bother to apply for a program in which 49,000 other applicants have also applied?

And so, it is because the selection process of the American program is held in such serious suspect that so many of us parents have become cynical. In Baku, there are many rumors that you have to pay bribes to become a finalist and that the Azerbaijanis administering the testing process act unscrupulously.

But for the program to be respected, it is absolutely critical that it maintains the integrity of the merit-based selection process. During the last two years, of nine applicants who have applied from my daughter's class, the three least successful students have been chosen for the program. Believe me, the pupils know each other better than experts in Washington do.

When we have complained to ACCELS about the lack of transparency in the process, we received back the usual standard answers.

"...We do not select students purely on language skills, academic records and accomplishments. Rather we look at the complete picture, and we look for the students who we think are most likely to have a successful year in the USA. Such variables and criteria concern aspects that cannot be enumerated or categorized for "open observation..."

So, basically, we Azerbaijani families have reached the conclusion that the process is very arbitrary and non-objective when entrusted to the hands of unscrupulous interviewers. We're starting to think that this model of "fair competition" hardly differs from the one we suffered from when we lived under the Soviet regime where individuals were chosen, not on merit, but on ideological principles.

Tragically, this program, rather than being the shining beacon for America's good will is becoming a sham against America as our cynicism grows. To overcome our suspicions and possible misinterpretations, it is critical that we perceive the selection process as fair and unbiased, and that the most highly qualified students become the recipients of this rare educational opportunity that Americans have so generously extended to our people.

Name withheld

Azerbaijan International (8.2) Summer 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.

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