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Ukrainian exchange student will spend year in Nevis

Mariya Berzovets (Shannon Geisen/Enterprise)

Mariya Berezovets — a 16-year-old exchange student from Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine — arrived in Nevis in early September.

She left behind a bustling city of 700,000.

Life in a small, northern Minnesota town has been a radically different change of pace, but Mariya, who goes by "Marie," likes it.

She's enjoyed star gazing on Fifth Crow Wing Lake.

"I heard coyotes," Marie said. "But sometimes it's kind of cold. I bought warm clothes this weekend."

She will spend an academic year in Nevis, living with a volunteer host family and attending Nevis High School. Kris and Bob Sauser are her host parents.

Marie's travels came about through the Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX), a competitive, merit-based scholarship program funded by the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Bureau of Educational and Cultural Exchange.

FLEX is also supported by the Foreign Links Around the Globe (FLAG) program, which aims to "positively impact world peace by bringing together people from different countries and cultures," according to its mission statement.

"It's a program for actually a lot of countries and it gives opportunity to people to spend a year in the U.S.," Marie said.

Begun in 1993, the primary goal of the FLEX program is to improve mutual understanding and develop long-term relationships between U.S. citizens and other peoples and countries.

There are currently 17 countries participating in the FLEX program, such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Ukraine.

The application process has several stages, and competition is intense. Only about one in 50 applicants are ultimately selected.

FLEX students must pass multiple rounds of testing to earn the scholarship. They are chosen based upon their academic achievement, involvement in extracurricular/community activities and for exhibiting the characteristics of an ideal exchange student.

Marie passed through three rounds of testing. She had to demonstrate an understanding of English grammar, write an essay about leadership and be interviewed by Ukrainian and American consulate officials.

"My mom wanted me to go. She was really happy, but I live only with my mom and my cat. Now she's kind of missing me," said Marie.

They keep in touch through texting and Skype.

To thwart homesickness, Marie keeps busy.

The Sausers took her pheasant hunting.

"It was a nice experience because we were just walking down the roads. It was beautiful because of leaves falling down," Marie said.

"My family is the best people ever," she said of the Sausers. "Now I have three sisters, 1 brother, a lot of dogs and three cats. And deer around the house."

Together, they've traveled to Bismarck, Fargo and Minneapolis as well.

She has specifically requested visiting Itasca State Park.

"I want to go everywhere," she said.

FLEX students are traditionally sent to rural American towns.

"It's really great idea to do this. We spend time here for school and we have projects to do."

Due to an interest in journalism, Marie chose to job shadow at the Park Rapids Enterprise for her first project. She spent one morning visiting with staff and observing newspaper production.