Olivier Joris and Didier Destexhe became best friends while studying at marketing school in the region of Liège in Belgium. During that time, Olivier, who had previously been an exchange student (Massachusetts, USA), began helping young Americans to come to Belgium for a year or a semester as part of a small student exchange program. Very soon, Didier joined Olivier, both sharing the passion for cross-cultural exchange.
This marked the beginning of an adventure that has grown into something the two founders never thought was possible. Thus, they searched for host families, provided assistance and support to exchange students, and organised activities so that foreign students could discover the beautiful country of Belgium. This was all done with limited resources and through “word of mouth” marketing.
Gradually, the program required more time, finances and energy. Olivier and Didier had to make a quick decision: either stop the project immediately, or further invest in it. After a soul-searching road trip across the US, and ignoring the warnings and scepticism of friends and family, the decision was made to officially form a student exchange organisation – and thus, WEP was born.
In the beginning, WEP concentrated on sending young Belgians as exchange students to the US and welcoming young Americans to Europe. At the time, "WEP" stood for "World Exchange Program".
During its first year, 39 young Belgian pioneers embarked on international trips. After overcoming various setbacks: administrative, technical, financial and other unforeseen challenges (e.g., visa denials by US authorities), the first group finally departed in September of 1989 to experience a lifetime of memories with their American host families.
Meanwhile, Olivier and Didier supported the students from a tiny office that was set up by Olivier's mother on the premises of her insurance company. It consisted of two chairs, one desk and a small electric typewriter (the first computer, expensive at the time, would appear two years later).
The wheels were rolling - the first 5 years of WEP saw the strengthening of its structure, the expansion to offer new destinations (Germany, Australia and Canada), as well as new programs, such as summer holidays with a host family in the US. The team soon realised the need to increase the visibility of WEP and to get a bigger office.
It was time to take a plunge and move the office to Brussels, the capital of Belgium. WEP’s first Brussels office was located in Saint Gilles, close to its town hall.
Business formulas for high school exchange, developed and proposed by WEP in Europe, were successful, and WEP’s reputation was quickly established, being considered as flexible yet 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", which allows students to combine two consecutive one-semester programs and to study overseas for one semester without losing academic credits back home through transfer of credits and convalidation.
As an entire year abroad was not within everyone’s reach, Olivier and Didier were committed to finding other ways to offer affordable travel and learning opportunities to Europe's young people. Therefore, WEP developed alternative programs and hand-picked a few of its most reliable foreign partners to launch them. Summer jobs in the US, volunteer projects in Africa and Latin America, internships, au pair positions around the world - WEP started to offer all kinds of adventures, permitting young people to travel and explore, to see the world differently and to practise foreign languages - even on a tight budget!
The reaction was immediate and better than expected: the public loved it and demanded more destinations; WEP's reputation continued to grow as a result.
Meanwhile, in Turin, Italy, a WEP-Italy branch was born. Lorenzo Agati, once an exchange student to the US, launched the first WEP office outside of Belgium. Again, success followed, and Italy embraced the young and energetic WEP team.
This was also the appropriate time to change the meaning of the company name. Initially, the activity-based student exchange programs prompted the name to be "World Exchange Program", but the diversification of programs justified a clearer message. Thus, WEP became WORLD EDUCATION PROGRAM emphasising the educational foundation at the core of each experience offered by the company.
In 1998, WEP moved for the second time to a larger office on Brugmann Avenue in Brussels. The team was expanding and diversifying, but there was still
much to be explored and developed. In addition to after school programs and project jobs, internships and volunteering, WEP began offering language courses.
WEP was trying to differentiate itself from many small and often overly-complicated agencies; with its rigorous approach, the careful attention paid to presenting information clearly, and uncomplicated rates and procedures, WEP was ready to objectively guide each participant in the direction of the project that best fit their needs and expectations.
The third and most recent move to an even larger office took place in 2003, to Jette Avenue in Brussels. Since beginning in 1988, WEP is in a constant state of evolution and growth. Today, after more than 27 years since the program's inception, Olivier and Didier call the team “WEP International” and have fully operational offices in several countries:
· Australia & New Zealand
Every year, nearly 5,000 young people around the world rely on WEP for unique experiences to “learn & discover the world".
The desire to introduce new projects and original programs which are adapted to the next generation, and the drive to innovate have always been at the heart of WEP’s mission.