Can a Domestic 'Study Abroad' Bridge America's Divides?

Can a Domestic 'Study Abroad' Bridge America's Divides?

By Stephen Starr



Because we all need to burst out of our bubbles.

By Stephen Starr

  • David McCullough, 26, has founded a program to match high school students so they can spend time living in different parts of the U.S.
  • The idea is to get students outside of their geographic and ideological bubbles.

More than any time probably since its western expansion, geography is reshaping America. Urban areas are deep blue, while rural regions are Republican strongholds. Walk into a diner in Casper, Wyoming, or Washington Heights, Manhattan, and it’ll be hard to find a dissenting political opinion; everyone’s singing from the same hymn sheet. And if no one’s airing a different view, then that perspective doesn’t really matter, right?

David McCullough has seen this up close and thought deeply about it.

While most students in his American studies class at Yale went overseas for their summer 2016 research project, McCullough stayed put. “I’ve always felt that you ought to know your backyard before you get out and learn a little bit about your neighborhood,” he says. “And I didn’t feel I knew anything about America.”


McCullough at his Yale University graduation in 2017 with his roommates.

Our communities are becoming ever more socioeconomically and politically homogenous.

David McCullough

Borrowing his mother’s Mazda, he took off across America: to Cotulla in south Texas, Cleveland’s blighted inner-city neighborhoods and the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. “Here in this country, we have the wealthiest areas in the world and the second-lowest standard of living in the Western hemisphere,” he says.

After almost two months and clocking in more than 7,000 miles on his mom’s car, there was one takeaway he just couldn’t shake, a refrain touched upon over and over by the students he met: that American kids are growing up in their own confined bubbles.

“What was extraordinary was when we realized that kids in the suburbs of big cities — affluent kids, kids on their way — were saying the same complaint about their town,” says McCullough, whose grandfather is Pulitzer Prize–winning author David McCullough. “The common phenomenon they were all sharing was that our communities are becoming ever more socioeconomically and politically homogenous.”

Group of students walking, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

So despite having no training or expertise, the 26-year-old decided to establish the American Exchange Project (AEP), a nonprofit offering high school juniors and seniors the chance to travel to parts of the country unlike their own and where, for a time, they’ll live in each other’s shoes. While a small number of American schools and colleges have forged similar such programs, AEP, launched last year, is the first to do so on a national scale.

While in-person exchanges are now expected to start up in the summer — coronavirus vaccine rollout permitting — around 200 students from 15 states including Massachusetts, Indiana and Arkansas are already engaging almost daily in conversations online. They talk about topics ranging from abortion and gun control, to what might be the best country to run away to, or what their Spotify playlist says about their personalities.


Born in Hawaii, where his father taught at a high school in the foothills of the Ko’olau range above Honolulu, McCullough spent the first eight years of his life on a Pacific island — which played a pivotal role in shaping his worldview. “I was often in the minority as a white boy in most of the classrooms and sports teams I was in and on,” says McCullough. Growing up on the school campus, he’d spend his days hanging out both with groundskeepers and Ivy League–educated teachers from the English department.

Later, when his family moved to the Boston suburbs, he found that his best friend, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who played on the same baseball team, was constantly changing schools because those in the inner-city districts kept closing down. It was an image that’s stayed with McCullough to this day.

Today, that economic divide afflicting America’s education system has been amplified by the pandemic. “Some of the challenges [the project] faces are timing,” says Richard Gibson, an AEP director and pastor at the Elizabeth Baptist Church in Cleveland’s Garden Valley neighborhood, where violent crime has risen during the pandemic. “Staff and teachers are facing so many challenges right now that it’s hard for them to look at this.”

McCullough, too, says that getting a hearing from schools in rural and conservative districts has been a task. “But we’ve never had anyone say ‘no,’” he says. “It’s more like: ‘Get back to us in six months.’”

Still, in the last three months, AEP has expanded from a staff of one — McCullough — to five, backed by 40 volunteers. McCullough runs the effort from the top floor of his parents’ home in Sudbury, Massachusetts. A dabbler in hobbies, he’s taken up smoking meats during the pandemic, after pursuing tennis, piano and watercolor painting. Next up? Perhaps learning French. He envisions helping hundreds of thousands, even millions, of students make connections across the country, while claiming no long-term plans for himself beyond AEP.

For students, having established contact with others and struck up friendships, the next step is to take part in in-person exchanges with students from a different geographic region. The monthlong travel itineraries (students visit their host’s community for two weeks) are funded by donations, and McCullough hopes around 60 students will travel in 2021.


McCullough with students from Brenda DeFelice’s Young Republicans Club at Sam Houston High School in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

“I thought that people up north thought they were better than everybody else,” says Allonah Ashworth, 17, who lives in Katy, Texas, and who’s planning to team up with a student in New England or California. “But they’re genuinely the exact same. We listen to the same music, watch TikTok, take the same classes.”

All the same, the bigger picture looms large.

“The bubble is still very much there and getting even worse,” says McCullough. “As citizens, we all need to care about our country — and the cancer that is tearing it apart.”