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.