Project offers free travel experience for Paly seniors

Brennen Ho, Senior Staff Writer

Palo Alto High School alum Wumi Ogunlade learns Cajun music at Lake Charles, Louisiana while participating in the 2021 American Exchange Project shortly after graduating. The exchange program, which is free of charge, allows high school seniors the opportunity to visit another city in the nation for a week. Ogunlade said her exchange project felt like a vacation. “I had so much fun,” Ogunlade said. “It’s such an amazing experience. You can have a free trip — a free vacation. Who doesn’t want that?” (Photo: American Exchange Project)

The American Exchange Project, a national exchange program for high school seniors, is the only program at Palo Alto High School that allows students the opportunity to travel over the summer for free.

According to economics teacher Debbie Whitson, a community volunteer for The American Exchange Project, the project aims to send high school seniors to new places around the country. During the program, students spend a week immersing in a completely new lifestyle while learning about issues important to the community they’re visiting and a week hosting visitors in their own community.

“Last summer, we focused on the environmental culture here in Palo Alto,” Whitson said. “They [the exchange program participants] did an organic farm. I think we’ll do the Hidden Villa tour this year in Los Altos Hills that shows organic farming. We’ll probably do the Monterey Bay Aquarium, maybe the Elkhorn Slough to show the sea otters.”

Whitson said that students can expect to gain valuable skills and learn about a lifestyle completely different to their own.

“You’d be able to see a different way of life,” Whitson said. “You’d see a place that you might have kind of written off as ‘That’s not very interesting.’ It’s a mind-opening experience.”

Paly alum Wumi Ogunlade, who participated in the project last summer, visited Louisiana and gained valuable experience and perspectives. Ogunlade said one perspective that stuck with her was the southern take on the Green New Deal, and how it would impact generations of work Southerners have put into their land and family.

“It’s a situation where I got to see from the perspective of Southerner,” Ogunlade said. “If I was Southerner I most likely would agree with them.”

Ogunlade said her favorite part of the program was her relationship with her host family.

“There were times after the program we went to Waffle House and we had such a good time,” Ogunlade said. “Also just being in the car and playing games — those are things that will be with me forever.”

Senior Valerie Chu, who has signed up for this year’s program, said she is looking forward to meeting new people.

“I heard that it’s gonna be in the Midwest or the South, which is pretty exciting,” Chu said. “[I’m] looking forward to getting to know people in a different area.”

According to Whitson, there is no application for the program and there is no cost for students to participate.

“It [the registration] takes about 15 minutes, but it’s not an application,” Whitson said. “You’re registering for an event and they are trying to get to know you a little bit. Nothing has anything to do with your grade point average or how many AP classes you took.”

Interested seniors can register to participate on the project’s website here.