September 9, 1988 marked the birth of a dream for two young friends from Belgium, and WEP was born... But how did it all begin?
Olivier Joris and Didier Destexhe became best friends while studying in a marketing school in the region of Liège in Belgium. At that time, Olivier, who had been an exchange student to the U.S. (Massachusetts) a few years earlier, started to invite young Americans to come to Belgium for a year or semester as part of a small school student exchange. Very soon Didier joined Olivier in his passion for cross-cultural exchange, an adventure that would later grow into something they could not think was possible. The two friends were looking for host families, provided assistance and support to students, organized activities so that the American youth would discover their beautiful country. All this was done with very limited resources and in a very traditional, old-fashioned way of 'word of mouth' promotion. Gradually, the program required more time, finances, and energy. Olivier and Didier had to make a tough decision: stop, or invest heavily in this project further. After a soul-searching road trip throughout the U.S., sweeping aside the warnings and skepticism of friends and relatives, the decision was made to form a student exchange foundation – and WEP was born.
To start, WEP focused on sending young Belgians as exchange students to the U.S. and continuing to receive Americans in Europe. At that time, WEP initials stood for "World Exchange Program." 39 young pioneers had their international trips during the first year of WEP. After many setbacks: administrative, technical, financial, unforeseen challenges (visa denials by the U.S. authorities), the first group finally departed in September of 1989 to experience a lifetime of memories with their American host families. Olivier and Didier supported them from a tiny office that was set up by Olivier's mother on the premises of her insurance company. It consisted of two chairs, a desk, and a small electric typewriter (the first computer, expensive at the time, would appear two years later).
The wheels were rolling - the first five years saw the strengthening of WEP structure, the development of new destinations (Germany, Australia, and Canada), as well as new programs, such as summer holidays with a host family in the U.S.
After 5 years of operation, the team realized the need to increase the visibility of WEP and get a bigger office. It was time to take a plunge and move the office to the capital of Belgium, Brussels. The first WEP Brussels office was located at Saint Gilles, close to the town hall. Business formulas for high school exchange, developed and proposed by WEP in Europe, were very successful, and WEP reputation was quickly established. WEP was considered a more flexible, professional, and more 'human' and innovative in its approach than most other operators at the time. It was WEP that invented the famous formula "Academix" that allowed a student to combine two one-semester programs into one in order to study overseas for one semester without loosing an academic credit back home through transfer of credits and convalidation.
As a year abroad was not within the reach of everyone, Olivier and Didier were committed to find a way to offer affordable opportunities for travel for Europe's youth. This is why WEP developed alternative programs to a full year exchange and handpicked a few best foreign partners to launch them. Summer jobs in the U.S., volunteer projects in Africa and Latin America, internships, Au Pair around the world - WEP started to offer all kinds of adventures, where youth can travel and explore, see the world differently and practice a foreign language - on a small budget. The reaction was immediate and better than expected: the public loved it and wanted more destinations, and WEP's reputation continued to grow as a result.
Meanwhile, in Turin, Italy, a small WEP-Italy branch was born. Lorenzo Agati, also a former exchange student to the U.S., launched the first WEP office outside of Belgium. Again, the success followed, and Italy embraced the young and energetic team of WEP.
It was also the time to change the meaning of the company's name - WEP. Initially, the activity-based student exchange programs prompted the name to be "World Exchange Program." But the diversification of programs required a clearer message that was less confusing. This is why WEP became WORLD EDUCATION PROGRAM SM to emphasize the educational nature found at the core of each experience offered by WEP.
The year of 1998 saw a second move to a larger office on Avenue Brugmann. The team was expanding and diversifying, but there was still much to be explored and developed. In addition to after school programs and projects jobs, internships and volunteering, WEP started to offer language courses. With its rigorous approach, simplification of information, rates and procedures, WEP was trying to stand out of the many small and often overly complicated agencies. With the language program in place, WEP was set to objectively guide each participant to the project that fit their expectations and needs the best.
The last move to an even larger office took place in 2003, to Avenue de Jette, and the WEP office is still at the same location. The evolution and growth of WEP has not stopped since its formation. Today, after so many years since the program's inception, Olivier and Didier call their team WEP International and have fully operational offices in several countries of the world:
· Italy (Turin and Milan)
· France (Lyon and Paris)
· Australia & New Zealand (Melbourne)
· Argentina (Rosario)
· U.S.A. (Stamford, Connecticut)
Every year nearly 5,000 young people around the world rely on WEP for a unique experience to 'learn & discover the world." The desire for new projects, innovation and search for program formulas adapted to the new generations has always been at the heart of the WEP team.