Under a nearly full moon in the unpolluted darkness of the night sky over Kansas, a group of student stargazers sat in a circle taking turns on the telescope. "It's weird. Like, some craters are super-tiny," said one.
It was a bonding experience that was out of this world, especially given that only a day before they were as foreign to each other as the lunar landscape itself.
Franely Rodriquez, a Dodge City, Kansas, native, said, "Politically and just morally, what we believe is completely different. So I was like, are we gonna get along?"
Kaya Woo, who hails from just north of Berkeley, California, said, "Everyone, they're like, 'What's your summer plans?' And I'm like, 'Oh, I'm going to Kansas.' And without fail everyone was like, 'Why? Why would you go to Kansas?'"
Why? The better question may be why not.
"You don't want to always be comfortable," said Californian Evan Quach. "You have to do things that make you, like, even if it's talking to a new person, it might make you uncomfortable, but you have to, or else you're not going to make new friends, you're not going to be able to experience life."
This past summer more than 300 high school graduates signed up for a unique student exchange program. Unlike the well-known foreign exchange model that affords students a chance to study abroad, say in Europe or Asia, this program gives students the opportunity to soak in a brand-new culture without ever leaving the country.
It's called the American Exchange Project, or AEP for short, co-founded by 29-year-old David McCullough III, grandson of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough. "We fund kids to spend a week in the summer after senior year in an American town that is politically and socio-economically and culturally very different from the one that they're growing up in," McCullough said.
He described the origins of AEP: "I grew up in the Ivory Tower, like, a life of enormous privilege. I wanted to get out of all of that and see a part of the country that I wasn't exposed to, but I knew was out there."
So, in 2016 he borrowed his mom's Mazda and spent the next two months driving across the country – part Jack Kerouac, part Tom Sawyer heading down the Mississippi. "I thought I'd be chased away," he said. "I thought doors would be slammed in my face. I thought people wouldn't want to talk to me. And not only did that not happen, but the opposite of that happened everywhere I went."
For the past three years he's been giving high school graduates that same experience, and so far at least, it's having the impact he hoped it would.
One student, Alex, said, "My groups of friends are not really close to each other, so I feel like I've actually bonded with you guys more than I have with my own friends."
One girl from South Dakota said, "I've never been a part of a community where … I'm not the minority, I'm not the odd one out. So, this is very much an experience that I really appreciate so much."
McCullough hopes to offer the program to a million students a year by decade's end, and all free of charge, thanks to big name donors, including the likes of Steven Spielberg. "I think this all ought to be as typical to the American high school experience as the prom," McCullough said. "I think every kid in every town should have an experience like this."
"Sunday Morning" followed Kaya Woo and Evan Quach as they left what they call their "liberal blue bubble" of Albany, Calif., for the reliably red bubble of Dodge City, Kansas.
"It's flat, it's so flat!" Woo exclaimed.
With each flat passing acre, their eyes widened, their jaws dropped, when they passed one of Dodge's massive feed lots. "It's really sad, but it's how our economy grows," said Franely Rodriquez.
Cowboys and cattle are a way of life in Dodge, just as American as the Golden Gate Bridge, but also a world apart. The city slickers visiting Dodge learned to dance the can can at the Boot Hill Museum; they drank sarsaparilla in the Long Branch Saloon; and they watched the sun go down while enjoying a Dodge City delicacy: pickle-flavored shave ice. "It's like when you drink the pickle juice out of the jar," said Kaya, who added, "I don't know if I want a whole thing of it."
When it was Franely Rodriquez's turn to immerse herself in the California way of life. her peers rolled out the blue carpet, for a kayak trip on the water. While navigating the less-than-conservative currents of San Francisco Bay, she found herself – for the first time ever – asking people about their preferred pronouns.
"Politics aren't, like, black-and-white, but really everyone is gray," she said. "Like, we mesh, we just don't realize it because we're so focused on splitting."
After paddling up an appetite, Franely was treated to In 'N Out, the holy grail of California fast food. "I normally don't like onions, but it works in here for some reason," she said.
Cowan asked McCullough, "There had to be, I guess at some point, a little bit of worry of what happens if we put these two, perhaps diametrically-opposed kids together?"
"I was a little bit worried that the communities were so different, that the kids wouldn't quite get it," he replied.
"And that's now what you've seen?"
"No, not at all. They assimilate quickly. Credit to being young, I think."
"Have you gotten any skeptics though?"
"There's a lot of folks that are worried that we are either a liberal trojan horse, or that have a hidden agenda, and we don't," McCullough said. "We don't do a lot of talking politics, and we have no agenda that we're trying to get through to the kids."
Just like foreign exchange programs, host families are AEP's foundation. For the last two years, Dodge City wife and mom Kirstin Bangerter has opened her home to students as a place to sleep and eat, and to learn from her family. "They seem very happy, very cheerful, very open, excited to experience new things," she said. "They don't seem afraid or nervous or anxious."
Visiting student Evan Quach noted, "A lot of the time you make the most progress in those informal breakfast table conversations and just sharing experiences before bed and things like that."
A week may not seem like a lot of time, but at the end of those seven days, you might be surprised at just how much change takes root. The kids we talked with said they'd bonded so much.
"I just learned that if I get along with them, that's cool," said Franely. "And if they respect me and respect what I stand for, we're good."
Kaya said, "Sometimes it's better to just be quiet and listen and really, like, process what people are saying. Think about it, maybe sleep on it before you even disagree."
There's that old adage about walking a mile in someone else's shoes; the problem is, you can't see the person face-to-face if you're walking away. What David McCullough is hoping is the next generation will turn around, look those they differ with in the eye, and just talk.
"I love my country, and I love what it stands for," he said. "And I love the ideals of what we're supposed to be about. And when that's in jeopardy, how could we all not want to rush to the fire and try to put it out, with everything we've got?"
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Story produced by Mark Hudspeth. Editor: George Pozderec.
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