Dakota Abbey, center, of Montana, enjoys the farmers’ market in Portland’s Deering Oaks on Saturday with other students visiting Maine as part of the American Exchange Project. The goal is to expose young people from different backgrounds to one another so they can find common ground. Bonnie Washuk

As she sat on a blanket Saturday at the Portland Farmers Market in Deering Oaks, Tawni Schmauch of Montana talked about seeing the ocean for the first time, about swimming and walking on silky sand at a Scarborough beach.

“It was super cool. The waves took a bit of adjusting,” she said. “I loved being able to pick up sea shells.”

Casco Bay High School students met students from red states last week at Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth as part of the American Exchange Project to foster connections between youths from different backgrounds. Photo courtesy of Kevin Murray

She was having a rough day, “stuff going on. The ocean made it so much better,” Schmauch said.

She was one of eight recent high school graduates from red states – Kansas, Montana, Colorado, West Virginia, Mississippi and Tennessee – visiting Maine for a week as part of an an exchange group led by Casco Bay High School teacher Kevin Murray as part of the American Exchange Project. Eight Casco Bay High seniors recently visited several red states as well.

The goal of the national nonprofit is to get young people out of their bubbles, to dissolve prejudices and facilitate connections between Americans of different backgrounds.

Founded in 2019 by David McCullough III, grandson of historian and author David McCullough, this is the first time the exchange program came to Maine, Murray said. Unlike baby boomers and Gen X, today’s Generation Z students are more focused on people than politics, Murray said.


Interviews Saturday with some of the student participants noted differences between Maine and their home states, but they talked more about the commonalities. The visiting students didn’t really want to talk about politics at all.

Last week, the group saw Portland Head Light, toured farms and businesses, camped at Mt. Blue State Park and spent time with a fifth-generation lobster family in Harpswell.

Dakota Abbey saw similarities between lobstering and how her father works as a veterinarian for ranchers in her town of Dillon, Montana.

“He has to pay attention to all the regulations for taking in livestock, cattle, sheep and pigs, how to ship animals and take them to market,” Abbey said. “It’s kind of the same thing with lobstering. They have to take specific measurements, they can only take specific ones, and they have regulations just like we do. It’s cool to see the similarities between the sea and land.”

The culture in Maine is different from Montana, she said, “but in the same way it’s not. It’s cool to see that and how different people live.”

Fabio Caciel-Reyes of Portland spent a week in West Virginia. That got him out of Portland and introduced him to how other people live and struggle in other states.


“A big part of this exchange is rather than focusing on politics, humanizing the other side that we don’t ever talk to,” he said. Speaking to youth from red states and hearing about conservative views is interesting, he said. “I’ve already built relationships with them.”

Murray said he was impressed with how the Portland and out-of-state students respected one another.

As it was nearing time for the visitors to leave, the two groups of young people exchanged phone numbers, suggesting that the goal of making connections was successful, the teacher said. “I had a little tear when they were passing their phones around.”

The exchange program will be held each summer.

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