Ashley Lin is a junior from Union High School in Vancouver, Washington. She's the Founder & Executive Director of Project Exchange, a youth-led, 501c3 nonprofit dedicated to increasing access to cross-cultural learning experiences for middle & high school students around the globe through digital programs.
Question 1 : How did you come up with the idea for My Project Exchange?
I started Project Exchange due to my own experiences being unable to access quality global education/cultural exchange as a child, because of a combination of finances, documentation, and lack of family awareness.
Receiving the lifetime opportunity to serve as a U.S. Youth Ambassador to Uruguay in 2018 fundamentally influenced my global perspective and I knew I had to help others access these experiences as well!
Upon returning from Uruguay, I felt this calling to help others experience what I had felt. My experience studying abroad not only allowed me to promote tolerance and increase mutual understanding between Uruguay and the U.S., but it also brought clarity to my own identity as an immigrant and hyphenated American.
I knew there were barriers to physical exchange experiences, and saw technology and digital tools to be the bridge to these experiences.
I created a Google Form to match people, and that’s how Project Exchange started!
Question 2 : Could you tell us how the digital exchange program and virtual field trip program work?
The Digital Exchange Program (DEP) is a 12-week program where we match up middle & high school students with a peer from a different country. Students apply through an application, where they indicate their language, culture, and passions, which allow us to create meaningful student matches. In each week of the program, students will complete a video call with their exchange partner and an individual follow-up activity, which will guide them to explore cross-cultural collaboration through themes of design thinking, community journalism, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Throughout the program, students engage with our digital platform on Slack, learn from facilitators and people in their “family” (groups of 3-4 DEP pairs), and build a mutual aid community that bridges geographic, cultural, and ideological barriers! For more information regarding our next cohort of the DEP launching January 6 (and how to get involved), please visit this form: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1IytKfmbeyH2gWSn0OkjvCnGNYBOXy0ghx4_wOgDMMIs/edit?usp=sharing
Question 3 : Tell us more about the process of getting started . How were you able to find the right team? How did you connect with mentors internationally?
I started Project Exchange after serving as a U.S. Youth Ambassador to Uruguay and my mentors, resources, and connections from that experience greatly influenced and supported me when I was getting started. There are many U.S. Department of State sponsored exchange programs, from NSLI-Y to YES Abroad, and I was able to find an amazing launch team through these networks!
Question 4 : What was the experience of obtaining nonprofit status like?
Project Exchange obtained nonprofit status a few months after we launched, in order to qualify for and receive grants, and provide benefits to donors. I think I took an unconventional route to applying for 501c3 status, and actually did the research and filed the paperwork myself (the 1023ez form is a lot more streamlined than it used to be)! My advice is to first make sure you have a strong Board of Directors/Trustees. They will be crucial to help you throughout the process and ensure your organization stays compliant with IRS and government regulations.
Question 5 : What role does teamwork play in your organization? What makes a good team member?
Project Exchange relies on team members from around the world in order to make sure our programs are meaningful and culturally-responsive to different student communities, as well as to manage overall day-to-day operations. A good team member is someone who is passionate about language, culture, and/or global citizenship.
They should be a creative thinker and a hard worker who doesn’t hesitate to jump in! Regardless of where your strengths are, from social media marketing to website design, there’s a way for you to get involved. Project Exchange strongly appreciates all of our team members who kindly donate their time to this organization, which is why we’re always open to tailoring positions/titles to best support goals and skills you’re trying to learn! For more information about open team member positions, please visit this document: https://docs.google.com/document/d/10gjLqNikDYwJ2jF1HJ9_vrAlxvONQbBa9u06P8SGazQ/edit?usp=sharing
Question 6 : How have your experiences and background influenced this organization?
Project Exchange was started due to my own experiences being unable to access quality global education as a child. I was naturalized as a U.S. Citizen in 8th grade. In the summer of the following year, I served as a U.S. Youth Ambassador to Uruguay. That experience helped me see the importance of global education not just to promote tolerance and increase mutual understanding, but to create an avenue towards cross-cultural collaboration to address today’s critical issues, from climate change to food insecurity to gender inequality. Since then, I’ve received scholarships to study abroad in Egypt and Kosovo, which have only strengthened my belief that cultural education is a critical component of quality education.
Question 7 : What do you enjoy doing outside of My Project Exchange? How are you able to balance everything. What motivates you to keep going during hectic times?
Outside of Project Exchange, I enjoy travelling (what a surprise), chasing sunrises and sunsets, doing black-out poetry, falling over in yoga class, or satisfying my foodie cravings! For me, being able to delegate tasks and take time for myself is crucial to balancing everything. Remember that constantly giving yourself to others will decrease your capacity to help them! For inspiration, you can find me waving my hands animatedly while talking about quality global education with our team members or DEP participants. Their experiences are what keeps me going!
Question 8 : Could you tell us about how you approach potential partners and sponsors? How has your age affected that process?
I think my age has actually been beneficial in approaching partners and sponsors. Often, people are surprised/impressed with the work I’m doing and are more willing to find time to chat about Project Exchange and offer advice (if not make an in-kind or financial donation). Don’t be afraid to reach out because of your age. Be confident in what you have to learn, and also what you have to give!
Question 9 : What are the biggest pieces of advice that you have for teens aspiring to be social entrepreneurs?
It’s simple—just start. Your first product/iteration of your program doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to work.
In the startup world, we call this building a minimum viable product! For example, Project Exchange started out as a Google Form. I saw a need (lack of cross-cultural education) and decided I would match people up who completed this form. We received so many submissions that we needed a more robust infrastructure for meeting this need, which led to Project Exchange.
Question 10 : What is your favorite animal?
Does Chewbacca count? I love Chewbacca and very much identify with his personality, not just because he is a jack of all trades. He’s stubborn, dislikes losing, and used to be somewhat reckless—however, for people who know him, he’s good-hearted, loyal, and trustworthy.
Follow Project Exchange on their platforms!