Students in Southwest Louisiana now have an opportunity to "foreign exchange" in their own country. The American Exchange Project, a non-profit focused on democracy building, allows juniors and seniors to cross the country to connect with each other digitally throughout the school year and then meet face to face through home exchange in the summer.
"Kids today feel like they're growing up in bubbles," David McCullough, executive director, said. "They may be different bubbles but the message is the same — rural, urban, coastal, heartland, rich or poor. They're saying, ‘I feel like I'm only growing up with people like me.'"
McCullough said the United States is a "very polarized nation" politically, economically and socially. However, programs like the American Exchange Program can help splint "a lot of the deep, divisive, corrosive fractures in our country at the moment," he said.
Students in the program meet once a week in an online group through Google Hangouts. The hangouts are one-part class on the participants' region of the country and one-part casual conversation.
"We're learning about each other, communities and why they are the way they are. But they're also a little bit like the old guys who go and get lunch in the same restaurant each week who just check in and hang out," he said.
The program has been running for more than a month with students from Sam Houston High School, St. Louis Catholic High School, schools in Boston and east Texas.
"It's becoming very popular. Already we're seeing kids add each other on social media which today constitutes a friendship."
At the end of participants' senior year of high school, they complete a fully funded exchange with another student in the program. Each student will spend three weeks in one of the 10 communities represented participating in cultural immersion activities, shadowing local professionals and taking part in programs hosted by local universities.
"This is going to be the trial year between what could be the first domestic exchange program. A sort of study abroad in America experience," he said.
Students who visit Lake Charles will have the chance to experience Cajun cuisine, Louisiana history, boat tours, wildlife and possibly campus life at McNeese State University, McCullough said.
Students who visit Boston will have the chance to participate in activities at Brandeis and Harvard University and other historical sites.
McCullough said more than 70 professionals across the country have given the program a "thumbs up" including Mayor Nic Hunter; state Sen. Ronnie Johns; Arlie Hochschile, author of "Strangers in their Own Land;" Paul Solman, PBS NewsHour host; and local educational entities. "Everyone one told thinks this program is really great and they're really opening their doors to us," he said.
The American Exchange Project is accepting juniors and seniors into its program. Interested students, families or schools should email McCullough at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.