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High school students challenge own political beliefs through domestic exchange program

First cohort of the American Exchange Project arrives in Palo Alto to explore — and listen

American Exchange Project organizers and students play cornhole at a homestay family's Old Palo Alto home on July 20, 2021, as other students watch and cheer on. Photo by Alicia Mies.

Last week, recent Castilleja graduate Divya Ganesan got to shoot at a gun range, do ranch work in a pair of cowboy boots and eat real Southern barbecue in the oil-rich Kilgore, Texas — an experience she called total cultural immersion.

Ganesan admits she initially didn't feel a "human connection" with the South, but as part of the American Exchange Project, a free, two-week domestic exchange program for high school seniors, she lived with a homestay family.

"I was able to see them not just as people who are conservatives and Christians from the South, but like a mom and dad who took me in and fed me, gave me vegetables, things like that," she said with a laugh.

A Bay Area native who felt like she grew up around people with similar political perspectives, Ganesan found that homestaying in Kilgore allowed her to put a face to the Southern conservatism she often read about in the media. The experience helped challenge her beliefs about the South and understand the nuance in the region's politics.

"Not a single person I met in Kilgore had the exact same perspective," Ganesan said. "We often put everybody under the same umbrella of 'conservative,' when really, everyone thinks so differently."

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David McCullough III, grandson of the noted historian with whom he shares a name, created the Exchange Project after embarking on a two-month road trip through Texas, South Dakota and Ohio. While on the road, he spoke to hundreds of residents, many of whom expressed concern about their children growing up in political bubbles.

To that end, the project's ultimate objective is to confront political polarization and show young people, like Ganesan, that they have more in common with others across the country than they may realize.

This week, 11 of the program's first cohort of 20 exchange students arrived in Palo Alto, while the rest traveled to Wellesley, Massachusetts. Last week, those who didn't go to Kilgore stayed in Lake Charles, Louisiana. After two years of conducting the program virtually, this is the program's first year of providing the youth with an in-person experience.

Locally, students went kayaking in Elkhorn Slough, visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium and saw a mariachi concert at Stanford's Frost Amphitheater. They also explored Ananda Valley Farm in Half Moon Bay.

While Jordan Hoffman, a rising senior from Lake Charles, has admired the natural beauty during the group's excursions through Northern California, she has also picked up on the competitive nature of the region.

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"I can see that it's very status driven here, just driven in general," she said. "Down South, it's good to get into college; here, it's good to get into Stanford. It seems like the beauty comes at a cost."

Matthew Murray, a recently graduated senior from Stamford, Connecticut, wears an American Exchange Project hat. His most memorable part of the California program was visiting the Ananda Valley Farm in Half Moon Bay. "If I lived in California, I'd want to move there tomorrow," he said. Photo by Alicia Mies.

On Tuesday night, Hoffman was eating pizza with students in the backyard of a house in Old Palo Alto while others played cornhole and ping pong. The cohort had just come back from a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and students were taking time to rehash the events of the week and their impressions of California. Like other Southerners in the group, Hoffman talked about some of her own assumptions about Californians before visiting Palo Alto.

"In the South, we have this idea that Northerners really look down upon us and think we're like these ignorant, uneducated, racist, homophobic people," she said. "Coming up here and seeing the type of world they live in, I realized it's not out of malice and it's more out of ignorance about how the South actually is."

With so many different people from diverse perspectives coming together, there are bound to be confrontations during debates. But while tensions have arisen sometimes, students say they have found more understanding than division.

Last year, recent graduate Wumi Ogunlade advocated for the Green New Deal as a part of Palo Alto High's speech and debate team. However, after hearing from Hoffman, a Louisiana native, she realized how nuanced the issue could be.

"Yesterday, we were arguing about this whole idea that the South doesn't support the Green New Deal and Jordan was like, from the perspective of the South, (oil and gas) is literally your livelihood. It's been generations and generations of your people just doing that and you can't expect them to just drop that," Ogunlade said. "I thought she was absolutely right. Last year, when I was arguing that we need the Green New Deal immediately, I said it's bringing new jobs, but it might not bring new jobs to Southerners."

Exchange Project students said that the program allowed for more open conversations — discussions in which the main objective wasn't to be right, but to engage with new perspectives. To Ogunlade, age also played a large factor in the group's open-mindedness.

"We build our beliefs from when we are little, so it's so hard to throw those beliefs away when you get older," she said.

'We build our beliefs from when we are little, so it's so hard to throw those beliefs away when you get older.'

-Wumi Ogunlade, graduate, Palo Alto High School

Shelby Maring, a graduated senior from Kilgore, chimed in, saying that younger people are more malleable, while Ganesan added that the mindset the group has is to listen — not to respond, but to understand.

Olivia Segal, the Exchange Project's director of program development, has helped facilitate the group's discussions by centering on acceptance and empathy. Growing up in a household where one parent was watching Fox News in one room and another parent was watching CNN in another room, Segal used to view politics as something really divisive.

"When I joined the Exchange Project, I realized it's not about having a debate, it's about building friendship," Segal said. "You know, at 3 a.m. when your car breaks down, you can call Josh from Kilgore, Texas, and you're not going to care who he voted for."

Last year, the project hosted virtual Zoom hangouts for high school seniors everywhere in the U.S. Discussions during hangouts, which were hosted six to seven times a week, included political debates and talks about the future after high school. Eventually, students who regularly attended began to suggest topics and take more agency in leading conversations.

Maë Ciezki, a graduated senior from San Diego, California eats smores in the backyard of her homestay in Old Palo Alto on July 20, 2021. Ciezki lived in Belgium and Dallas before moving to San Diego in her senior year and will attend University College London next fall. Photo by Alicia Mies.

While fruitful, the virtual program was never intended to be the final form of the program. With all students and staff now being vaccinated and health precautions being lifted throughout the country, the in-person exchange program began on July 10.

Staff members have high hopes of expanding the Exchange Project to 30 to 40 new towns in about 20 states, including a stop in Alaska. Eventually, they aim to help 100,000 students travel across the country for free every summer.

The project is funded primarily by individual contributions from hundreds of people as well as from a few foundations and corporations, according to McCullough.

While the staff is hopeful about the project's future, students — now Exchange Project alumni — expressed just as much optimism for the heights that they believe the program can reach.

"When AEP has a ton of government funding, I'll be so proud to have been one of the first kids to join the program," Hoffman said.

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High school students challenge own political beliefs through domestic exchange program

First cohort of the American Exchange Project arrives in Palo Alto to explore — and listen

by / Contributor

Uploaded: Fri, Jul 23, 2021, 9:17 am

Last week, recent Castilleja graduate Divya Ganesan got to shoot at a gun range, do ranch work in a pair of cowboy boots and eat real Southern barbecue in the oil-rich Kilgore, Texas — an experience she called total cultural immersion.

Ganesan admits she initially didn't feel a "human connection" with the South, but as part of the American Exchange Project, a free, two-week domestic exchange program for high school seniors, she lived with a homestay family.

"I was able to see them not just as people who are conservatives and Christians from the South, but like a mom and dad who took me in and fed me, gave me vegetables, things like that," she said with a laugh.

A Bay Area native who felt like she grew up around people with similar political perspectives, Ganesan found that homestaying in Kilgore allowed her to put a face to the Southern conservatism she often read about in the media. The experience helped challenge her beliefs about the South and understand the nuance in the region's politics.

"Not a single person I met in Kilgore had the exact same perspective," Ganesan said. "We often put everybody under the same umbrella of 'conservative,' when really, everyone thinks so differently."

David McCullough III, grandson of the noted historian with whom he shares a name, created the Exchange Project after embarking on a two-month road trip through Texas, South Dakota and Ohio. While on the road, he spoke to hundreds of residents, many of whom expressed concern about their children growing up in political bubbles.

To that end, the project's ultimate objective is to confront political polarization and show young people, like Ganesan, that they have more in common with others across the country than they may realize.

This week, 11 of the program's first cohort of 20 exchange students arrived in Palo Alto, while the rest traveled to Wellesley, Massachusetts. Last week, those who didn't go to Kilgore stayed in Lake Charles, Louisiana. After two years of conducting the program virtually, this is the program's first year of providing the youth with an in-person experience.

Locally, students went kayaking in Elkhorn Slough, visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium and saw a mariachi concert at Stanford's Frost Amphitheater. They also explored Ananda Valley Farm in Half Moon Bay.

While Jordan Hoffman, a rising senior from Lake Charles, has admired the natural beauty during the group's excursions through Northern California, she has also picked up on the competitive nature of the region.

"I can see that it's very status driven here, just driven in general," she said. "Down South, it's good to get into college; here, it's good to get into Stanford. It seems like the beauty comes at a cost."

On Tuesday night, Hoffman was eating pizza with students in the backyard of a house in Old Palo Alto while others played cornhole and ping pong. The cohort had just come back from a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and students were taking time to rehash the events of the week and their impressions of California. Like other Southerners in the group, Hoffman talked about some of her own assumptions about Californians before visiting Palo Alto.

"In the South, we have this idea that Northerners really look down upon us and think we're like these ignorant, uneducated, racist, homophobic people," she said. "Coming up here and seeing the type of world they live in, I realized it's not out of malice and it's more out of ignorance about how the South actually is."

With so many different people from diverse perspectives coming together, there are bound to be confrontations during debates. But while tensions have arisen sometimes, students say they have found more understanding than division.

Last year, recent graduate Wumi Ogunlade advocated for the Green New Deal as a part of Palo Alto High's speech and debate team. However, after hearing from Hoffman, a Louisiana native, she realized how nuanced the issue could be.

"Yesterday, we were arguing about this whole idea that the South doesn't support the Green New Deal and Jordan was like, from the perspective of the South, (oil and gas) is literally your livelihood. It's been generations and generations of your people just doing that and you can't expect them to just drop that," Ogunlade said. "I thought she was absolutely right. Last year, when I was arguing that we need the Green New Deal immediately, I said it's bringing new jobs, but it might not bring new jobs to Southerners."

Exchange Project students said that the program allowed for more open conversations — discussions in which the main objective wasn't to be right, but to engage with new perspectives. To Ogunlade, age also played a large factor in the group's open-mindedness.

"We build our beliefs from when we are little, so it's so hard to throw those beliefs away when you get older," she said.

Shelby Maring, a graduated senior from Kilgore, chimed in, saying that younger people are more malleable, while Ganesan added that the mindset the group has is to listen — not to respond, but to understand.

Olivia Segal, the Exchange Project's director of program development, has helped facilitate the group's discussions by centering on acceptance and empathy. Growing up in a household where one parent was watching Fox News in one room and another parent was watching CNN in another room, Segal used to view politics as something really divisive.

"When I joined the Exchange Project, I realized it's not about having a debate, it's about building friendship," Segal said. "You know, at 3 a.m. when your car breaks down, you can call Josh from Kilgore, Texas, and you're not going to care who he voted for."

Last year, the project hosted virtual Zoom hangouts for high school seniors everywhere in the U.S. Discussions during hangouts, which were hosted six to seven times a week, included political debates and talks about the future after high school. Eventually, students who regularly attended began to suggest topics and take more agency in leading conversations.

While fruitful, the virtual program was never intended to be the final form of the program. With all students and staff now being vaccinated and health precautions being lifted throughout the country, the in-person exchange program began on July 10.

Staff members have high hopes of expanding the Exchange Project to 30 to 40 new towns in about 20 states, including a stop in Alaska. Eventually, they aim to help 100,000 students travel across the country for free every summer.

The project is funded primarily by individual contributions from hundreds of people as well as from a few foundations and corporations, according to McCullough.

While the staff is hopeful about the project's future, students — now Exchange Project alumni — expressed just as much optimism for the heights that they believe the program can reach.

"When AEP has a ton of government funding, I'll be so proud to have been one of the first kids to join the program," Hoffman said.

Email Alicia Mies at [email protected]

Comments

BGordon
Registered user
Midtown
on Jul 23, 2021 at 3:30 pm
BGordon, Midtown
Registered user
on Jul 23, 2021 at 3:30 pm

It would be interesting to compare homestays in Old Palo Alto, South Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Tracy, Stockton, etc.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 24, 2021 at 11:49 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jul 24, 2021 at 11:49 am

This is great.

Hopefully now students (and adults alike) will better accept other political points of view from friends, neighbors, coworkers, cohorts, within Palo Alto.


It is good to listen to why someone thinks that way before condemning someone's opinion. Whether they live in a different area of the world, the country, the State or in the same town.


Lindsey Decker
Registered user
Los Altos
on Jul 24, 2021 at 12:52 pm
Lindsey Decker, Los Altos
Registered user
on Jul 24, 2021 at 12:52 pm
Scotty
Registered user
Green Acres
on Jul 24, 2021 at 8:33 pm
Scotty, Green Acres
Registered user
on Jul 24, 2021 at 8:33 pm
Yoenis Montoya
Registered user
Stanford
on Jul 25, 2021 at 7:23 am
Yoenis Montoya, Stanford
Registered user
on Jul 25, 2021 at 7:23 am

> We have conservative god fearing folks here in PA.

Conservative viewpoints aside, why fear God?

For true believers, isn't he (or she) always supposed to have your back?

And as for learning to understand the mindset of red state conservative Bible Belters, there are movies that can provide a chilling vicarious experience.

No need to actually interact with or even attempt to comprehend their 'visions'.


Betty Phillips
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Jul 25, 2021 at 7:35 am
Betty Phillips, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Jul 25, 2021 at 7:35 am

"No need to actually interact with or even attempt to comprehend their 'visions'."

^ Unless you happen to find yourself stuck in Bakersfield, CA.


Purvis Allen
Registered user
Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 25, 2021 at 8:08 am
Purvis Allen, Palo Alto Hills
Registered user
on Jul 25, 2021 at 8:08 am

Kevin McCarthy-R, the House Minority Leader in Congress is from Bakersfield.

That speaks volumes about the conservative right and their perspectives.


Roger Lemon
Registered user
Community Center
on Jul 25, 2021 at 9:51 am
Roger Lemon, Community Center
Registered user
on Jul 25, 2021 at 9:51 am

The contemporary conservative right is entitled to their opinions but there are no underlying obligations for any reasonable person to take them seriously.

Self-righteous hypocrites are best avoided.


John B. Sails
Registered user
Midtown
on Jul 25, 2021 at 11:18 am
John B. Sails, Midtown
Registered user
on Jul 25, 2021 at 11:18 am

Buck Owens sang some pretty open-minded-sounding songs, such as "Streets of Bakersfield" and "Made In Japan."


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 25, 2021 at 11:25 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jul 25, 2021 at 11:25 am

Great to see some of the closed minded comments here. No wonder our young people have to travel to other parts of the country to learn how to listen. As role models, the people commenting with their very closed minds and judgmental statements are exactly why young people need to get out of town to learn how to think for themselves.

Is this really the message we want to hear here? With adults like this I fear for the next generation.


Robert Montez
Registered user
Greenmeadow
on Jul 25, 2021 at 11:44 am
Robert Montez, Greenmeadow
Registered user
on Jul 25, 2021 at 11:44 am
Jennifer
Registered user
another community
on Jul 26, 2021 at 9:30 am
Jennifer, another community
Registered user
on Jul 26, 2021 at 9:30 am

I hope the kids had fun, but in all honesty, most kids aren't thinking about politics. They're not taxpayers. For kids who do get involved at a young age, I hope they don't burn out early. Voting is so important, and too many adults don't vote.


Harmony Johnson
Registered user
Atherton
on Jul 26, 2021 at 9:46 am
Harmony Johnson, Atherton
Registered user
on Jul 26, 2021 at 9:46 am

It would be nice if this program also extended into Hawaii.


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