A new pilot domestic exchange program is connecting high schoolers who recently graduated with others who come from different backgrounds and have different experiences and live in different areas of the U.S.

The American Exchange Project is an exchange program "with a twist," says executive director David McCullough, III.

"You actually never leave America," he says. "So we send students to towns that are demographically and geographically very different from where they are."

For example, someone who grew up in what is considered a liberal town may travel to a more conservative area and someone from an urban area may go to a more rural area. "The whole idea is for our American young people to learn a little bit more about their country — from the people in places they call home — and to dive into another culture, another socioeconomic class, another set of political beliefs, and maybe build a little bit of empathy for people who are different from them."

During the in-person exchange trips, the students split time between planned activities that exposed them to local life, reflection activities and conversations, and open time to hang out with each other. They all stay with host families, but during the day, they're together as a group taking part in various activities. Twenty students traveled to four different locations through the pilot program: Palo Alto, Calif.; Kilgore, Texas; Lake Charles, La.; and Wellesley, Mass.

When the students from Texas and Louisiana toured the public school system in Wellesley — a Boston suburb — they were flabbergasted, McCullough says. They learned that many families move to the area just for the education system, an approach that many from the South are not able to do because their families have been rooted in one place for several generations.

"So kids in Wellesley don't have that same sense of place that kids from the South have, right?" he says.

In another instance, the students from Wellesley who are very aware of climate change and its effects and the petrochemical industry met with a student in Texas whose parent works in the industry. It gave a new layer to the issue to learn about the many people who would lose their jobs without such industries, McCullough says.

"And so for them, it felt like a real life example and also created a much more nuanced problem," he adds.

AEP is for seniors who have graduated from high school, and there are no academic or extracurricular requirements to take part, McCullough says. What may be most attractive to would-be exchange students is that the program is entirely free for students.

"Whoever you are, wherever you come from, you're right for our program," he adds.

Funding comes from community foundations, individual donors and communities, he says.

From 2019 to early 2021, hundreds of students took part in about 500 virtual discussions, says McCullough, the grandson of the noted historian and author.

Participant Maëlys Ciezki said, "Because you're around people who are your age, you hear a lot of points of view, but since they're your age, you're more apt to listen," adding that there were kids on both sides of the political spectrum as well as other issue areas.

This story is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.