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World War II ended in 1945. For the preceding six years, the world had been shattered by hate. It was now time for rebuilding to begin globally.
But the reconstruction of buildings and roads was not enough. Relationships among countries and its citizens, which had been fractured deeply, had to be rebuilt as well.
In 1946, U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas helped pass legislation in Congress to create a program “to increase mutual understanding and support friendly and peaceful relations between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.”
The Fulbright Program, as it is now known, has since become the U.S. government’s flagship international academic exchange program, and a rare initiative that commonly receives strong bipartisan support.
As a former Fulbright grantee to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, a small, landlocked country in the heart of Europe, I can speak firsthand to the power of the program and its unique mission. My preconceived notions were challenged and often wrong. What I thought would be insurmountable personal differences between me and Luxembourgers were only minor hiccups. By the end of my experience, I had built lifelong relationships grounded in trust.
When I returned home, I was eager to share what I had learned about and from my European friends. The experience had also reaffirmed my pride in being American.
Nearly a decade later, I’m still extremely proud to be an American, but it is no secret that America is more divided today than perhaps ever before and pride in our country is dwindling. In a recent Gallup poll, only 39% of respondents were extremely proud to be American. In the same poll, when data from only 18-34-year-olds were analyzed, only 18% of respondents were extremely proud to be American. And to top it off, less than half of the country believes America’s best days are ahead of us.
But I choose to view this data as an opportunity – and you should too.
At the core of the issue is that we simply don’t truly understand the experiences of all our fellow Americans. So, our relationships are fractured, and trust is nonexistent. But what is the reason for this, and how do we address it?
It is simple – we do not routinely experience and engage with the lives of our fellow Americans outside of what makes us comfortable. In one poll, 11% of respondents had never traveled outside the state where they were born, and 54% had visited 10 states or less.
The hardships and issues faced by Americans in New York City differ greatly from Americans who call Huntsville, Alabama, home. Most residents of San Francisco, California, have never lived for an extended period of time in Arthur, North Dakota, and vice versa.
Because we have never experienced or known anyone who has experienced what it’s like to live in an area so “opposite” of ours, we often take mental shortcuts to label the “other” as ill-informed, “out to get us” and – at times – evil.
We should not be surprised at this outcome. The system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets, with echo chambers that confirm our beliefs. But there is a solution.
A domestic exchange program – similar to the Fulbright Program in prestige but focused on short-term, real-world job exchanges among citizens after high school or college graduation – can help break us out of this harmful cycle.
While the creation of the program would not solve the challenges of division we face as a country overnight, it would begin the healing process and remind all of us that more unites us than divides us. Similar to the Fulbright Program, not everyone interested in participating will be able to do so. But those selected to participate will return home and share what they have learned with their family, friends and community. We will build mutual understanding and begin to remember what it means to be American.
While many may assume a program of this magnitude and scope would require substantial additional federal tax dollars, that would not be the case. The Americans selected to participate will end up working full-time, contributing to the local economies and earning their pay directly from businesses.
The required administrative burden and re-location fees of the program may be funded through re-direction of already earmarked economic development funds at the state level or through public-private partnerships with diverse entrepreneurs who have lived the American Dream and their companies.
It also offers an unparalleled opportunity for endorsement and support from our political leaders who so many Americans turn to, including former Presidents Donald J. Trump and Barack Obama.
Just like the Fulbright Program, this novel, domestic, job exchange program would be an investment in our shared future when the country needs it most. I refuse to believe that America’s best days are behind us.