Envisioning a California-wide high school exchange program

Over the weekend, I saw this neat NYT piece about the growth of urban-rural exchanges across the country. That reminded me of the (unpublished) piece I penned below a few years back and led me to stumble on the American Exchange Project. If you're connected to that organization and / or know any cool examples of this type of intranational high school exchange program, I'd love to hear about it. Please drop a line in the comments below.

One of my more memorable experiences growing up was when my middle school Spanish teacher had us teach a lesson to a bilingual elementary school class of native speakers.

In what retrospect feels like an only in California moment, my group showed the younger kids how to fold various origami. Sadly, those sorts of interactions are ad hoc and require heroic actions by individual teachers or engaged parents to transcend rule-bound systems and routine.

Imagine a California where we encourage all of California’s children to broaden their horizons and most importantly provided them the opportunity to do so. What if such opportunities were not a one off day but a deep immersion to learn from the rich traditions across the state?

California has one of the highest concentrations of languages spoken across the entire planet. Our state boasts an incredible array of cultures that are more prevalent here than anywhere else other than their ancestral home. 

And in recent years a growing movement led by organizations like California Forward has developed growing connections across our state’s diverse regions. Why not build on that growing connectivity to provide unique opportunities for students. 

Imagine a program where California’s students could study not abroad in a foreign country but in another part of the state. What if students could spend a semester living with a host family in a different region of the state? Kids from Modoc could spend time in Montebello and vice versa. 

Given the de facto divides across our state, many students might not even have to travel very far to get a very different experience from the day to day educational experiences in their zip code. 

Such a program could learn from foreign exchange programs so that students genuinely and authentically immerse themselves with their host family and learn their culture and potentially another language. 

Such an exchange program would have to be very thoughtfully put together with California’s diverse communities and crafted with humility to cultural, racial, class and other differences so that the experience uplifts students who choose to participate. 

In our current political moment, some of those differences can feel insurmountable. Yet one on one individual interactions provide the opportunity for students to walk a mile in other Californians shoes and learn the skills to build a California where everyone can reach their dream.

This type of exchange program would not be a panacea. Yet by building bridges across the invisible walls that too often divide us, it would be a solid step towards making the California dream accessible to everyone who calls this beautiful place home. 

Perhaps the most profound lessons would be for us adults who might just come to see that “our kids” are not just those that happen to live in our little enclave in a particular zip code but that our futures are intertwined in a web of mutuality.

A Californian might dream. 

Please see below for a nice description of their program from the American Exchange Project and a video of students out to embark on their adventure below. You can donate to that cause here.

Toxic polarization has moved into our daily lives, corroding our faith in one another and our democracy, shaping the choices we make, the people we associate with, and the places we call home. As a consequence, our kids are growing up isolated in bubbles that burden their mental health and limit their development as young adults and young citizens.

Welcoming the stranger, hometown pride, a deep love of our children, and a reverence for the character building journey—these are deeply American ideals. AEP harnesses them, along with the energy and curiosity of young people, to create a solution: a free domestic youth exchange program.

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