Russia Pulls Out of US Funded Student Exchange Program

MOSCOW - Amid political tensions with the West, Russia is pulling out of a popular high school exchange program funded by the U.S. government, according to the U.S. embassy in Moscow.

"We deeply regret this decision by the Russian government to end a program that for 21 years has built deep and strong connections between the people of Russia and the United States," Ambassador John Tefft said in a statement.

The Future Leaders Exchange program, known as FLEX, places students from former Soviet countries in year-long exchanges at high schools around the United States where they live with an American family.

According to the U.S. Embassy, more than 8,000 Russian high school students have participated in the program since it launched 21 years ago. The goal was to help foster closer ties and understanding between the former Soviet world and the West after the Cold War.

One of those students was Elena Chernenko, now a correspondent for the Russian newspaper Kommersant. From 1999-2000 she attended high school in Arlington, Texas, and forged lifelong friendships.

"It was a great experience, both for me, as a participant of this program and for my host family and the friends that I met there. I think this program is very important," she said, in a phone interview, using the English she perfected in the U.S.

Chernenko said the program helped break down stereotypes she held of Americans and she was able to teach her classmates about Russia.

"I was the only foreigner there. And my friends were asking, like, do you have television? Do you have electricity?" she recalled with a chuckle.

"I do not understand really why our government would shut down a program like this," she lamented. "I'm very sad. I don't think that this is something that should be done. Cultural exchanges, student exchanges, scientific exchanges, they should stay whatever the political situation is."

She also left an impact on her host family, inspiring her "younger brother" to study Russian in college.

Chernenko said the program taught her as much about herself as it did about the United States, and she left determined to go back and work in Russia.

Russian authorities have yet to explain the decision to suspend cooperation with FLEX, but Russian President Vladimir Putin's government has taken a confrontational stance towards the United States in recent years. In 2012, Russia kicked out the US Agency for International Development and has targeted non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funding, branding them "foreign agents."

Those tensions boiled over this year after Russia seized Crimea and fomented tensions in Ukraine, leading to several rounds of American and European sanctions.