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