In the living room of Don and Tammy Isom’s Harvard house are framed senior photos of students from around the world whom they’ve hosted for school-yearlong stays.
The Isoms have hosted teens from Thailand, Indonesia, Norway, Denmark, Germany, China and Austria through the American Field Service Student Exchange program, and were hoping to host a student from the former Soviet Union.
This year, the Isoms are hosting 17-year-old Muhiddin Abdulhakimov from Kyrgyzstan.
“I kind of wanted the kids in Harvard to experience a person from a totally different culture,” Tammy Isom said. “This would be something different for them to learn his customs and his culture.”
Abdulhakimov is on the Future Leaders Exchange scholarship program. He is one of three AFS exchange students on U.S. State Department scholarships to be placed in McHenry County this year, said Becky Deignan, a team development specialist for AFS-USA in Northern Illinois.
FLEX was created in 1992 to build relations with countries of the former Soviet Union, such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan or Ukraine.
Two additional students from Indonesia will be on Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study scholarships. One will attend Woodstock High School and one will attend Prairie Ridge High School in Crystal Lake. AFS is in the process of finding the students homes for the school year.
They are part of the 1.2 percent of AFS exchange students from Indonesia who applied for and were offered YES scholarships.
Having three students on U.S. State Department scholarships in McHenry County is the most ever for AFS in the county, Deignan said.
“When you talk to people who host, it opens their eyes to the world,” Deignan said. “How often do you meet someone from Kyrgyzstan or Indonesia? You just don’t.”
Deignan said it is rare for AFS to have foreign exchange students from non-westernized portions of the world not on scholarships.
“Part of that reason is just finances,” Deignan said. “How many people there would be able to afford versus someone from Germany or France.”
Abdulhakimov is the sixth full-year student the Isoms have hosted and eighth overall exchange student since 2005.
“You learn a lot about them, they learn a lot about America,” Don Isom said.
Abdulhakimov, already wearing a Harvard Hornets T-shirt, said he is looking forward to his year in the country.
“I want to learn about America,” Abdulhakimov said. “It’s a big country, and I want to learn about the culture, American people, about high school, because it’s different.”
He added that some of his goals for the year are to share some of his traditions, culture and the Muslim religion, especially because Kyrgyzstan doesn’t host exchange students. During his first week with the Isoms, he made an eggplant salad for the family.
Abdulhakimov, who wants to be a diplomat in the future, said he has been working on his English since the third grade in the country where the official languages are Russian and Kyrgyz.
Abdulhakimov said the FLEX program is popular in his country. Receiving the scholarship is a multistep program and awarded in a merit-based competition, which includes interviews in English and multiple tests.
The scholarships pay for the cost of coming to the United States for the year, which could range from $12,000 to $14,000, Deignan said.
The scholarships include the flights, orientation costs and health insurance, among other things.
Full-ride scholarships don’t happen all the time, but they’re available, Tammy Isom said. “It’s nice when you can get those.”
For the 2010-11 school year, the FLEX program had 55,000 students from countries that used to be part of the former Soviet Union apply to get into the program. There were only 1,100 scholarship spots. Generally only one in five applicants advances to the final round, and only 2 percent of applicants are chosen, according to the program website.
“It’s easier to get into Harvard [University],” Deignan joked.
The Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program was started in 2002 to help build understanding between Americans and people in countries with significant Muslim populations, such as Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Bulgaria, the Philippines, Indonesia, Mali, Kenya, Saudi Arabia and Suriname, among others.
Students who receive the scholarships have to go through testing and multiple interviews. They are evaluated in individual and group settings. According to program websites, students need to have global awareness, interest in diverse cultures, curiosity, open-mindedness and flexibility.
Evaluators want to see how the youngsters interact, their leadership skills, how they express themselves,s and how they handle challenging situations, Deignan said.
Host a student
People interested in hosting an exchange student through the American Field Service should call local team development specialist Becky Deignan at 646-381-3316.