Oceans separate American students from most of the world’s prime study abroad opportunities, but there’s also an enormous gulf in the middle of the United States – one a national, grassroots effort aims to bridge.

This country’s cultural divide is growing ever-wider, says David McCullough III, driving the philosophical wedge deeper between East, South, West and North, isolating Americans inside social enclaves.

Across the country, he insists, young people are feeling the disconnect, clearer and deeper, as Americans lose faith in one another.

Rich or poor, Red state or Blue, “They feel like they’re growing up in bubbles, and they don’t have many opportunities to burst the bubble.”

Executive director of the American Exchange Project, McCullough has been visiting Kilgore and other communities far beyond his native Boston, acknowledging the nation’s divisions and actively re-casting them as an opportunity for youths.

“We’re giving kids the chance to study abroad in America,” he said last week, midway through his second foray to Kilgore, hosted by Dr. Glenn Young of First Baptist Church of Kilgore. “The phenomenon of the American road trip – Adventure is inherent in the hearts of all Americans; it’s part of being a citizen in a massive country with a diverse population.”

The concept is simple, and it’s catching on quickly in a score of communities including Kilgore and Longview.

Through AEP’s domestic exchange program, students fresh out of high school have the opportunity to spend a portion of the summer after graduation in, for many, alien territory: the East Coast for Kilgore grads or, for Boston’s young adults, in the heart of the East Texas Oilfield.

McCullough can’t wait to hear Massachussetts students reactions to Kilgore’s signature skyline – there will undoubtedly be a lot of students in Red Sox hats staring up at the derricks in awe this summer.

Funded by the nonprofit exchange project, students will stay with peers (and their families) they’ve already met and come to know through online interactions such as Google Hangouts and Skype. They’ll immerse themselves in the culture of the destination community – history, lifestyles, professions.

“Hopefully they learn a little bit about life in their own country and how people live differently from them – what they believe, how they live, what they think,” McCullough said. “They’ll be able to empathize with people growing up on the other side of this cultural divide. It makes our country a little more accessible to its citizens, and I think that’s what excites people.”

The online interactions have already begun – students from 18 communities, including about 15 Kilgore High School seniors, began their initial conversations this week following McCullough’s most recent visit to the south, including stops in Louisiana as well as other corners of Texas.

Young was quick to sign on to the venture, joining a diverse array of academics and experts ranging from Baylor University President (and former U.S. Solicitor General) Ken Starr to Major Sarah Gerstein of the United States Military Academy to Paul Solman of PBS NewsHour.

At the initiative’s core is a recognition this nation is divided, Young says, the sides refusing to speak, polarizing even more. Beyond that is the opportunity for students to travel, to interact, to learn and to grow.

“It’s a great, educational cultural experience for our students,” he said, an introduction to the wider world starting with their fellow Americans. “It gives them that opportunity.”

The first exchange is slated for this summer, and the American Exchange Project has partnered with numerous other national organizations to lay the program’s foundations.

“It’s a wholesome, organic solution to what is unequivocally the greatest problem in our country right now and maybe our world. It won’t fix it on its own, but it can contribute significantly.”

A large part of that effort goes beyond the students, McCullough added last week, a sincere outreach to their parents as well, building bridges through mutual care for their children.

“If you want parents to care about something that they might not care about otherwise,” McCullough said, “get their kids to care about that thing.

“A conversation that begins with ‘Thank you for showing my child such a nice time,’ is very different from a conversation that begins with ‘How the heck do you think what you think? What we’re trying to do is create in adults the spirit of open-mindedness, open-heartedness, listening and loving and asking questions before making accusations.”

It’s fun, engaging, he says, and part of a larger effort to start sealing the fractures in the country’s bedrock.

“If you’re living in a world where you see a massive, glaring problem that threatens to change history and the way of life you love, shouldn’t you want to do something about it?” he asks. “When what you’re doing is inspiring other people and creating hope in the eyes of other people, people who might otherwise disagree with each other, that’s how you know you’re making progress. That’s how you know you’re righting the ship.”


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