Kilgore chosen for 'study abroad' exchange program inside U.S.

David McCullough III, executive director of the American Exchange Project, visits the Kilgore Rotary Club on Nov. 20 to outline plans for a domestic "study abroad" program sending recently graduated Kilgore High School students to Boston and vice versa to help "burst the bubbles" youths feel trapped in because of America's growing cultural divides.

KILGORE — More than a dozen Kilgore High School seniors will study “abroad” soon after graduating this coming spring — but they’ll never leave the shores of the United States.

A new national program seeks to bridge what its founder calls the country’s “cultural divide” by giving newly graduated seniors a chance to spend a portion of the summer in another part of the nation, living with a peer and his or her family whom they’ve gotten to know throughout the year using online connections.

David McCullough III, executive director and founder of the American Exchange Project, was in Kilgore last week to present the program’s ideas to the Kilgore Rotary Club. He was hosted by the Rev. Glenn Young, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Kilgore.

Across the country, McCullough said, young people are feeling the disconnect between the cultures — East, West, South and North — clearer and deeper, as Americans lose faith in one another.

Rich or poor, Red state or Blue, “They feel like they’re growing up in bubbles, and they don’t have many opportunities to burst the bubble,” he said.

McCullough has been visiting Kilgore and other cities in Texas and in Louisiana — far beyond his native Boston — acknowledging the nation’s divisions and trying to recast them as an opportunity for youths.

“We’re giving kids the chance to study abroad in America,” he said last week on his second foray to Kilgore. “The phenomenon of the American road trip — adventure is inherent in the hearts of all Americans; it’s part of being a citizen in a massive country with a diverse population.”

Through the project’s domestic exchange program, new graduates can spend a portion of the summer in, for many, alien territory: Kilgore grads would go to the East Coast, and Boston’s grads would come to the heart of the East Texas oilfield.

McCullough said he can’t wait to hear Massachusetts students’ reactions to Kilgore’s signature skyline. He said he expects a lot of students in Red Sox hats to be staring up at oil derricks in awe this summer.

Funded by the nonprofit exchange project, students will stay with peers and their families they’ve already “met” and come to know through online interactions such as Google Hangouts and Skype.

The online meetings already have begun. Students from 18 communities, including about 15 Kilgore High School seniors, began their initial conversations this week.

McCullough said throughout the length of the project, the students will immerse themselves in the culture of the destination community — history, lifestyles, professions.

“Hopefully, they learn a little bit about life in their own country and how people live differently from them — what they believe, how they live, what they think,” McCullough said. “They’ll be able to empathize with people growing up on the other side of this cultural divide. It makes our country a little more accessible to its citizens, and I think that’s what excites people.”

Young was quick to sign on to the venture, joining academics and experts ranging from Ken Starr, former Baylor University president and former U.S. solicitor general, to Maj. Sarah Gerstein of the U.S. Military Academy to Paul Solman of “PBS NewsHour.”

At the initiative’s core is a recognition that the nation is divided, Young said, the sides refusing to speak, creating more polarization. Beyond that is the opportunity for students to travel, to interact, to learn and to grow.

“It’s a great, educational, cultural experience for our students,” he said.

The first exchange is slated for this summer, and the American Exchange Project has partnered with numerous other national organizations to lay the program’s foundations.