The exchange project uniting young Americans during the pandemic

By Stephen Starr
Dayton, Ohio

Published
image copyrightCourtesy American Exchange Project

A project to bring together young Americans of different backgrounds hopes to become first nationwide domestic exchange programme in the US - but the pandemic has thrown up some major obstacles.

Eighteen-year-old Clarissa Ko lives in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, where the average house costs close to $1.5m (£1.1m). The high school senior works part-time at a restaurant called Pappa Razzi and spends much of her time researching universities.

Ben Martin is also 18 and lives outside Lake Charles, Louisiana, a town known for oil refineries and a major casino where the per capita income is less than $30,000 (£21,800), and where two major hurricanes last year took dozens of lives and destroyed whole communities.

image copyrightAFP via Getty Images
image captionBen Martin is from Lake Charles, Louisiana

Despite the contrasting worlds around them - the pandemic notwithstanding - the two have become close friends over the past year, chatting in online hangouts sometimes until two o'clock in the morning.

"We randomly send Snapchat videos, talk about being a teenager during Covid," says Ko.

"It's a normal friendship like I'd have with someone who lived down the street," adds Martin.

The pair are hoping that, Covid-19 vaccination rollouts permitting, they'll be able to visit each other this summer.

"I really want to see the north," says Martin, who has never visited New England.

Ko and Martin were brought together through the American Exchange Project (AEP), a new initiative that's working to connect young Americans from across the country's constellation of different - and differing - socio-economic backgrounds and regions.

It's the brainchild of David McCullough, who four-and-a-half years ago spent the summer driving from Boston to Cleveland to Texas and to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, studying the impact of poverty on education.

image copyrightCourtesy American Exchange Project
image captionBen Martin

His journey, however, uncovered for him something else entirely: listening to America's teenagers he learned how they were growing up in their own bubbles, but that they are keenly aware of that and crucially, were keen to experience something else.

"It was evident to me travelling around the country that a lot of kids are growing up around kids that are exactly like them, going off to extraordinarily similar futures," he says. "And kids, almost on an instinctive level, sense that."

The experience moved him a little over a year ago to establish the American Exchange Project with the goal of offering high school students the opportunity to interact with their peers - people ascribing to worldviews different from their own - in other parts of the country. He hopes it will become America's first nationwide domestic exchange initiative.

Over 175 students at 39 schools in 14 states have so far taken part in AEP's online "hangouts". The meetings take place three or four times a week and involve discussions on topics ranging from the everyday such as comparing the songs on each other's Spotify lists to serious issues such as racism.

Once the pandemic subsides, students from the east and west coasts will travel to the South and Midwest, and vice versa, taking part in a series of activities that place them in the heart of their host community.

"If you're growing up in a big city, you're going to a small town; affluent kids are going to disadvantaged areas," McCullough says. "The idea's to get you into a place that's as close to the opposite of where you're growing up as you can find."

Outside of informal initiatives organised by and between individual schools and universities, the US had no country-wide domestic cultural exchange programme prior to AEP's formation.

And while study abroad has been a beloved and popular experience among students for decades, McCullough hopes his efforts will motivate young Americans to see their own country from others' point of view - and maybe curb the animosity currently dividing the country.

"The goal is for every school in America to be involved one day," he says.

Still, the challenges are considerable.

None are greater than starting an exchange programme in the midst of a global pandemic that's fuelled wholesale travel restrictions and lockdowns.

It's like "opening a bar during prohibition," McCullough acknowledges.

Another has been connecting with students in rural and disadvantaged communities, where over the past year inadequate infrastructure such as poor internet access has overwhelmed teachers and school staff.

Recent studies have highlighted how the pandemic has exacerbated underlying inequalities around geography, race and poverty, resulting in children in poorer areas falling behind those in wealthier parts of the country.

image copyrightCourtesy American Exchange Project

While schools such as Louisiana State University in Ben Martin's home state boasts one of the most successful American football programmes in the country, the state of Louisiana has one of the lowest education attainment rates of any in the US.

Conversely, Massachusetts, where Ko lives and that's home to elite private colleges including Harvard, MIT and Tufts University, has one of the highest.

Confronting stereotypes

For Ko and Martin alike, preconceived ideas of life in America 1,500 miles (2,400 km) from their own towns have been greatly altered due to the online chats facilitated by the American Exchange Project.

"I imagined a bunch of Ivy League wannabes who wanted to go to a really expensive school," says Martin of how he had imagined life for teenagers in New England. "Kind of like The Great Gatsby-esque."

image copyrightBoston Globe via Getty Images
image captionClarissa Ko is from Wellesley, Massachusetts, which is different from Louisiana including when it comes to weather

That view was changed when he and Ko started to get to know each other when talking about college, friends and battling in an online Hunger Games simulation game.

Ko says she initially hoped to exchange with students in California and experience life on the west coast through the AEP. Now, having connected with Martin and hearing about the South firsthand, she feels that it's a more interesting region to explore.

"When we learned about US history and the South, I had thought that it was more racist, not gonna lie. I had this idea that there was a 'we' and 'they' mentality. I've realised that in reality we're just all people, we definitely have similarities that we forget about," she says.

"And then there's the food."

McCullough says that over the last year the programme has seen students from liberal backgrounds take centre stage, with others from conservative areas dropping off slightly.

"But we feel that's a problem with the way the programme is set up right now, not necessarily a problem with the kids themselves," he says. "Zoom right now is kind of like a cafeteria table and like a cafeteria table, kids eventually want to sit with people who are their friends."

At a time when socio-political divisions in the United States are at fever pitch, perhaps worst illustrated by the 6 January siege of the Capitol in Washington DC by supporters of former president Donald Trump, McCullough believes efforts to unite even a small cohort of the population has never been more vital.

"One of the most difficult things for us is not taking sides, and showing that we are for all Americans, because of how tribal and divisive the culture is right now, and how quick folks are to label an issue as one side or another," he says.

Still, the students' appetite for learning more about their new friends and their country has been a consistently positive outcome of the project.

"Once we meet them, we find that they're just as enthusiastic about the idea," says McCullough.

"Our hope is that kids are really itching for travel after over a year of social distance living."

A lot of people are excited about a return to some form of normal life. But the idea of a return to a pre-pandemic day-to-day can also make people anxious - even overwhelmed.

We're looking for your stories about why you feel like you might not yet be ready to go back to the way it was.

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