Student exchange programs should be established

<strong>Paly’s academic focus has caused the school to have a lack of experiential learning opportunities, in particular exchange student programs, which is a disservice to students because of how life changing these opportunities can be.

My family moved to Palo Alto when I was 2, and we’ve lived here ever since. Because of this, I think it is natural that I would be a bit ignorant toward how the rest of the world lives — to have a sort of bias for the Bay Area culture and atmosphere. 

I did understand that people’s lives are different all around the world.  However, a part of me assumed that everyone has experienced the vibrant multiculturalism, the suffocating competitiveness and the liberal techie culture Bay Area citizens experience. 

When I signed up for a 7th-grade exchange student program to go to Tsuchiura, a Japanese suburb near Tokyo, I didn’t expect to be surprised by anything. Sure, the food and language would be different, but a suburb is still a suburb and people are still people, right? 

Yet, when I arrived at Tsuchiura, I realized it could not have been more different than Palo Alto. A green carpet of rice patties blanketed the landscape. No grey, tech-company office buildings in sight. The slow pace of daily life was a breath of fresh air from the hustle and bustle of Silicon Valley. The polite collectivism contrasted the independent, do-it-yourself attitude prevalent in the Bay Area. 

I was shocked — I didn’t realize how vast the world was until that moment. I didn’t realize how many perspectives, experiences and dimensions people have. A Japanese quote that I learned from this trip still sticks with me: “井の中の蛙、大海を知らず” or “A frog in a well never knows the vast ocean.” 

When I became a student at Paly, I thought I would have the opportunity to participate in another exchange program, to have my eyes opened a second time. Yet, I found that even in a resource-abundant environment like Paly there are virtually no school-supported exchange student programs. It was a head-scratcher for me; why was a high school unable to provide a program equivalent to something I experienced in middle school?

I thought one reason might be the bureaucratic nightmare involved in organizing any school-sponsored, long-distance field trips, much less an exchange program. Schools have a hard time approving something with so much risk and responsibility. 

Teachers and administrators naturally don’t have an incentive to dedicate so much time to something that doesn’t directly contribute to academic learning. Not to mention the amount of paperwork, communication and diplomacy needed to send students to a whole different country.

Another factor could be the lack of parental support for these programs. It’s understandable parents may have a hard time letting their not-of-age child live halfway across the world. It’s also hard for parents to justify paying the hefty price tag that comes with such a program.

Still, did the program that I participated in in middle school have more administrative know-how or parental support? No. Paly certainly does have the resources to support an exchange student program. 

Palo Alto has seven sister cities, which are all connections waiting to be leveraged. PAUSD has the money to provide scholarships for underprivileged students. In fact, Paly students traveled to Japan over the summer just 15 years prior. I knew that the true reason must lie elsewhere. 

After talking to teachers, I soon realized that the heart of the problem was that Paly students don’t have enough interest or time to become an exchange student. 

That’s why it’s such a shame. During arguably the most impactful years in their lives, most Paly students will never get to live such a life-defining experience. That, in an era of mass globalization, we can’t experience life in another country. That, like a frog in a well, it’s our own closed-mindedness that keeps us from broadening our own horizons.