My name’s is Bo Knutson, and I’m working this Fall as a Participant Recruiter for the FLEX and YES Programs. I first worked in this position nine years ago, in the Fall of 2009, and since then I have recruited in 5 years in Russia, Ukraine, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Serbia. This year I have the opportunity to recruit in Serbia, Ukraine, and Bulgaria. I thought I’d share some impressions from my first testing center on recruitment trail this Fall, to give you an idea of what it’s like to be a Participant Recruiter for the FLEX and YES Programs. For me, part of the appeal of recruiting is that it yields a lot of rich impressions, and the work constantly provides glimpses into the everyday lives of teachers, students, and people who live in towns outside of capitol cities, or conventional destinations for travelers.
My first recruitment trip this fall took me to Zaječar, a city of about 50,000 people in eastern Serbia, close to the border with Bulgaria. To give a brief pronunciation note, ‘j’ is always pronounced as a ‘y’ in Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian and the diacritic above the letter ‘c’ is pronounced ‘ch’- ZA-ye-char. My recruiting partner on this trip was my co-worker and friend Sanja, whose name in Serbian means ‘she dreams’ (or, ‘he dreams’).
We left the office in the afternoon and arrived to Zaječar in the early evening. Zaječar is known in Serbia for its brewery that produces above average beer, and for hosting an annual a rock music festival- ‘Gitarijada,’ that is entering its 67th year of operation.
Just googling the town yields some interesting and unexpected information- the Romans palace built a palace in Zaječar in the late 3rd century B.C. and in the 4th century the city produced 3 successive Roman emperors. As a region, the Balkans are thick with history from many different empires and occupying powers. For me, it was impossible not to ponder the juxtaposition between the sleepy, calm, clean town of Zaječar with the Zaječar of the 3rd and 4th century- a bustling center of trade between Romans and Thracians, that hosted a grand palace and spawned emperors. What would the students be like?
When we arrived to the hotel in Zaječar, Sanja gave me an amused but cryptic warning- “Last year, if I remember correctly, the hotel rooms were very blue.” Indeed, when we arrived, nearly everything in my hotel suite was the color blue, including the sheets on the bed. There isn’t much more that I can say to convey the absolute blueness of the hotel suite. After dinner, we returned to our hotel rooms, wrangled with hotel wi-fi (a common activity for recruiters) and relaxed to be ready for testing the following morning.
We set off at about 8 a.m. to walk to the host school where testing would take place. My girlfriend’s dog is from Zaječar, and he is a rambunctious an endless source of energy amusement. So as we walked to the testing center school I found myself distractedly staring at all of the strays that we passed as they lolled in the grass or merrily skipped past us. On the way, we passed some fun street art that represented the two aforementioned things that Zaječar is best known for in Belgrade.
When we arrived to the school, we were met by Ognjen and Jelena, two recently returned FLEX Program alumni. They had arrived to help us with FLEX testing. Their key role was to help us ‘register’ students, giving them a FLEX I.D. card/answer sheet, a welcome notice with information about the program, and by helping them staple their photo to their I.D. card.
A lot of the excitement of round 1 of FLEX testing takes place during this stage registration, when large crowds of applicants and curious students gather and crowd around the registration tables. Inevitably, parents also show up, sometimes asking the team questions.
While the alumni registered students, Sanja and I prepared the rooms and the materials for testing. At 9 a.m., we began to admit students to the testing room, checking their I.D.s for eligibility as they enter- applicants for the 2018-19 FLEX program need to have been born between January 1, 2001 and July 15, 2003.
As we checked I.D. cards to determine eligibility, I noticed that the I.D. that many of school I.D. booklets as identification that the students provided had the pictures ripped out. I asked a student, where is your I.D.’s picture? ‘Here,’ he said, offering me the small passport sized picture with his other hand. He, along with many other students, had had ripped his picture out of his school ID booklet in order to use it for FLEX round 1 participation.
It took about 30-35 minutes for us to test each group of students, explaining to them how to take the test, implementing the test, and then giving information on how they may find the results online around lunchtime. Recruiters have the test administration down to a system, and are able to move students in, test them, and move them out with efficiency.
For this reason, round 1 testing normally doesn’t allow for much interaction with the students. The students faces are a gallery of determination, attentive nervousness, giddy excitement, and stoic reserve.
We started at about 9am, and the students were well-behaved and polite, and we were able to stay on schedule. We ended up finishing our testing students by 11a.m.; in total we tested 57 students for round 1. As this total for round 1 was lower than expected, we corresponded with senior FLEX staff in Ukraine on the number of students to invite to round 2. We were able to take about half of the students who attended round 1. This was great for us, and for the students, as we wanted to bring as many students as possible to round 2. About half of the students were from Zaječar, and the rest were from smaller towns in Eastern Serbia- places with names like Bor, Negotin, and Knjaževac.
After grading the tests and posting the list of invitees for round two, we had time for a short lunch. For testing centers with smaller turnout, we are usually able to conduct round 2 of testing in the same day, in the afternoon. Round 2 consists of completing an information sheet about the student, and three essays in English that allow the applicant to expand on their interest in the program.
We returned from our lunch break to find some of the round 2 students already assembled and ready to continue with FLEX testing. They smiled at us as we entered, and we got down to business. Altogether, the administration of the round 2 essays and information sheet takes a little more than one hour, and we have a little more time to interact with this smaller group of students. But as anyone who works with students knows, small moments always stand out. This time, as we assisted the students complete the information sheet together, one bright-eyed student in a leather jacket pointed to the ‘name’ field on the info sheet, and asked me, ‘What should I write here?’
I said, ‘Well, what’s your name?’
He answered, ‘Milan- like the city.’ He puffed his chest, patted his jacket, and said, ‘You know- fashion!’
After we finished the information sheet, we gave the students the instructions on how to write their round 2 essays, and read them translations of the questions in Serbian. After a collective deep breath, the students began the essay. During the essay, the students were deep in getting their thoughts on paper, as Sanja and I organized our materials. When time ran out, we collected and counted the students essays to ensure that we had one from every student, and gave them some basic information about the third round before bidding them farewell. Later, towards the end of the month, we would hold round 3 and interview 15 of these Zaječar students. But that, along with round 3 recruiting for FLEX testing, is another story altogether…