Union High School junior Ashley Lin never thought she’d have the opportunity to study abroad. It was always too expensive or otherwise inaccessible.
But in the summer of 2018, Ashley, 16, was named a U.S. State Department Youth Ambassador to Uruguay, spending four whirlwind weeks in Washington, D.C., and South America. It was an eye-opening experience, she said, but not just for the cultural opportunities she had while there. It showed her the importance of providing chances for young people to travel and learn from communities abroad.
“There’s a critical need for more kindness and empathy in our communities,” Ashley said.
It’s with that in mind that Ashley launched Project Exchange, a nonprofit creating opportunities for middle and high school students to study abroad — sort of. Students in the program are paired with peers abroad for a free 12-week online exchange, talking online, then doing an activity that builds on the call, like sharing a recipe or a play list of songs popular in their home country.
Project Exchange’s curriculum is rooted in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, a list of 17 broad aspirations to improve health, reduce poverty, preserve the environment and eliminate discrimination around the globe. Ashley was inspired by her time in Kosovo, studying abroad through the U.N. Foundation’s Girl Up initiative, to pull those values into Project Exchange.
“You can’t solve these issues in any one country,” she said.
Students who complete the digital exchange program then have a chance to pursue a project that improves their community. It can be as simple as a trash cleanup, Ashley said, or as complex as hosting a festival at school.
In its short life, Project Exchange has grown rapidly. The organization’s leadership team consists of about a dozen young people, ages 13 to 24, from across the United States and abroad. The organization was recently recognized by the America’s Promise Alliance, receiving a $1,000 grant to continue to grow. And in its most recent cohort, the digital exchange had 75 students from 15 different countries.
“We all come from such different backgrounds,” Ashley said. “You can still be friends and work with people to build a stronger community.”
On Thursday, Ashley met with Melissa Guarin, an architect at LSW and one of her mentors, to discuss a proposed series of videos with women in STEM. These “virtual field trips” are another Project Exchange initiative.
Guarin called Ashley “a great inspiration to other young students.”
“It’s connecting people with new information,” Guarin said. “It was a little seed, but this is going to plant the seed for so many other great kids.”
It is, admittedly, a lot of work for a teenager still enrolled in high school. There are international guests to coordinate, curricula to write, grants to apply for and meetings to hold — plus homework. But to Ashley, it’s an opportunity for young people to learn about and pick up the skills needed to tackle the world’s most overwhelming problems.
“We are the biggest stakeholders in the future,” she said.