Building bridges across the American divide

From June 19-26, Civic Nebraska hosted four young people through the American Exchange Project. When the week was over, we were overflowing with optimism and enthusiasm for our nation’s future.

We often say that “We, the People” means our youngest Americans, too: Introducing young people to a wider world helps develop their critical thinking, civic leadership, and civil discourse skills and prepares them for a lifetime of active citizenship. Earlier this year, when the American Exchange Project approached Civic Nebraska about hosting high-school students from around the country for a week of cultural exchange, we were grateful to lend a hand.
 The American Exchange Project, or AEP, builds connections through cultural immersion, community events, professional development, and volunteer opportunities to understand local issues. From June 19-26, Civic Nebraska hosted four amazing young people through the project – and by the time the week was over, we were overflowing with optimism and enthusiasm for our nation’s future. Throughout the week, Eloise (Palo Alto, California); Gabe (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania); Daniel (Cleveland, Ohio), and Evelyn (Kilgore, Texas) demonstrated thoughtfulness, curiosity, and eagerness to step into unfamiliar spaces in the spirit of connecting more closely with a larger world.
“Having lived in Lincoln for 25 years, it was thought-provoking to see our home through the eyes of a young visitor for a week,” said Heidi Uhing, Civic Nebraska’s director of public policy who, with her husband Scott, hosted Evelyn from Texas. “We had several great talks about the political divides in our country, and throughout the week we learned from her the geographic and cultural differences in the different regions of her vast state, her love for fried pickles, and her clear and heart-warming appreciation for the tight-knit community her small town provides.
“We’re grateful to have met Evelyn and commend her for the bravery it takes to travel to an unfamiliar place.”
Students spent time in city parks, dined at locally owned restaurants, and enjoyed cultural stops like the Sheldon Museum of Art. They also toured Lincoln’s Kawasaki plant, met independent downtown business owners, and hung out with artists running pop-up shops at neighborhood makers’ markets. Then, toward the end of their week in Nebraska, they took part in a special Capitol Experience Day and learned about Nebraska’s unique form of government. They met with a state senator and volunteered at a local food bank.
A common theme throughout the students’ stay: While there were obvious differences between Lincoln and each of their hometowns, they found moments to remember that Americans are a lot more alike than they are different. That empathy is AEP’s purpose: With hyper-polarization undermining our faith in one another and American democracy, today’s students risk growing up isolated, burdening their mental health and limiting their development as young citizens. Through its partner schools and organizations, AEP imparts timeless American ideals: Welcoming strangers, community pride, responsibility for all our community’s children, and passing down age-old American character to new generations.
Our sincere thanks to AEP for connecting Civic Nebraska with these dynamic, clever, and motivated young people – and for sincerely connecting youth across the country to promote friendship and understanding at an important point in their lives. We’re honored to be part of the nationwide effort to encourage young people to explore their country and discover what it means to be an American.

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