On exchange program to other states, Lawrence-area young people find common ground across America’s political divides

photo by: Bishop Seabury Academy

American Exchange Project participants, from left: Josie Kim, Campbell Helling, Cambill Garlock, Emmy Flat Lip, Lear Eicher, Sage McHenry, Delainey Black and Peyton Abbey.

Over the summer, several young people from the Lawrence area got to explore parts of America they’d never been to before — and learn that American politics and culture might not be as polarized and divided as they once thought.

They were participating in the American Exchange Project, a nonprofit program that was available to students in the Lawrence area for the first time this summer. The program sends students to stay with a host family in a different part of the country — which may have a different political landscape, too — in hopes of fostering civil discourse among young people with different backgrounds and opinions.

“(The program) is breaking down boundaries and stereotypes that you may have about different areas of the country,” said Lear Eicher, a 2023 Bishop Seabury graduate who traveled to central Maine as part of the program. “I kind of feel like the point of the program was to see humanity in people you disagree with.”

On Eicher’s trip, the young people talked about a number of hot-button political issues, including abortion rights, gun control and policing. But they also got some eye-opening new experiences that had nothing to do with politics.

“I had the scarring experience of killing a lobster and then eating it 45 minutes later,” Eicher said.

Eicher said he made friends with some unexpected people on the trip, and that he got more experience relating to people with very different political opinions, including “some who may get on your nerves.”

“It’s a rewarding experience,” he said, “even if it’s not fun every single minute.”

Another Bishop Seabury graduate, Owen Ross, spent a week in Anchorage, Alaska, and said that it “definitely went better than expected when putting opinionated teenagers from all over the country together.” That was true even when they talked about polarizing issues like bodily autonomy — “generally just a hot topic right now.”

“The political discourse went surprisingly well,” he said. “I think a lot of times in the media it’s made to seem like everything is dualistic, but we tended to find that there is actually a lot more gray area.”

Ross said he also spent time at a wildlife conservation center, “and there were so many different kinds of animals you would never see in the Midwest.”

“We also saw bears and moose in the wild,” he said. “We actually saw a bear close to the campsite one night.”

Yet another Bishop Seabury graduate, Cambill Garlock, went to the Bay Area. She said that her political views contrasted with those of her host family, but that they were able to talk through some of the differences and find common ground. One of the highlights of the trip was a tour of Alcatraz Island, she said, and she also attended a presentation by the founder of the American Exchange Project, David McCullough III.

“One of the things he mentioned was that people across the country don’t really pay attention to news other than where they live,” Garlock said, “but that he is hopeful the program will change that.”

Lawrence didn’t just send young people away; it also hosted some guests from other states. Delainey Black, of Portland, Maine, and Emmy Flat Lip, of southwest Montana, both said they were pleasantly surprised by the northeast Kansas landscape, and they quickly got over their preconceived notions that the state was just flat land and cornfields. Black and Flat Lip got to tour landmarks like the Kansas Statehouse and Allen Fieldhouse and took a nature hike on the Konza Prairie.

photo by: Bishop Seabury Academy

Participants in the American Exchange Project enjoy a nature hike on the Konza Prairie trail. From left: Peyton Abbey, Emmy Flat Lip, Elyse Hammann and Delainey Black.

They also volunteered for lunch service at the Lawrence Community Shelter, and Black said the homelessness crisis in Lawrence is similar to the one in her hometown.

“It was a positive experience that I don’t think I would have gotten had I just visited on my own,” Black said, adding that “it was interesting to see similar issues (of homelessness) in different parts of the country.”

Only recent graduates are eligible to travel for the program, but several current Bishop Seabury students were involved, either by hosting an out-of-state student or helping coordinate activities. Current senior Campbell Helling told the Journal-World that “the program did a really good job of opening up different perspectives for me.”

“Especially because of the internet, I feel like we dehumanize opposing views,” she said.

When planning the itinerary for the visitors, the students had to look at things from the point of view of an outsider, said Bishop Seabury senior Sage McHenry.

“It was kind of fun to think about our town from an outside perspective,” she said, “and what might be interesting about our town and community to people from other regions of the country.”

Bishop Seabury history teacher Sonja Czarnecki, who oversees the program for area students, said she was compelled to get involved with American Exchange Project because the program’s goals were aligned with her own beliefs. On the program’s website, McCullough said he saw the United States as “a divided country, full of good people, who knew little about life on the other side of the divide,” and Czarnecki said she wants to foster that kind of communication.

photo by: Bishop Seabury Academy

American Exchange Project participants spend a day at Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri. From left: Emmy Flat Lip, Campbell Helling, Delainey Black and Lear Eicher.

“Those are the same goals that I have in my classroom, and also in my work in the community with the League of Women Voters,” Czarnecki said. As someone who values civil discourse, she said, “I think this program is a wonderful thing for kids to do.”

Now that the program has had a successful launch in the area, Czarnecki said she hopes to see more people get involved. Students interested in participating can contact her by email at ks-lawrence@americanexchangeproject.org.

photo by: Bishop Seabury Academy

Destinations for local students participating in the American Exchange Project are revealed on “AEP Day” at Bishop Seabury Academy. From left: Lear Eicher, Owen Ross, Cambill Garlock and Taylor Richmond.


Welcome to the new LJWorld.com. Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.