'I can see myself retiring here:' teens find common ground in Scranton through exchange program

Jul. 30—SCRANTON — Over orders of chicken wings, a trip underground at the Lackawanna Coal Mine and a ghost tour of downtown Scranton, teens from elsewhere discovered they had more in common than they thought.

For the last week, three teens from Kansas and Mississippi explored Northeast Pennsylvania, after two Scranton students spent a week someplace else.

The American Exchange Project gives new high school graduates the chance to spend a week in a different part of the country, free of charge. In its second year, the program sent 150 students to locations across the country. This is the first year Scranton has been a destination, and organizers want to increase participation next year.

"This is such a diverse nation," said Olivia Segal, director of community relations for the donor-funded program. "The real goal is to have fun with each other, so they understand each other better."

While in the region, students visited Nay Aug Park, Steamtown National Historic Site, the University of Scranton and the water park at Montage Mountain and took an impromptu trip to Philadelphia. Staying with host families, the teens discussed current events and learned more about the region's cultures and traditions.

"This place feels really safe, and it's so beautiful," said Jessie Gonzalez, 18, of Brandon, Mississippi, who will attend Mississippi State University for international business in the fall. "I can see myself retiring here."

Emma Jackson, 18, also from Brandon, will attend a community college with the eventual goal of becoming a veterinarian. While in Scranton, she said she appreciated hearing so many languages and experiencing the rich diversity. She also met many friendly people.

"People are a lot nicer here," she said.

Scranton was the farthest north the visitors had ever traveled.

"This week showed me I can be independent and move away from home," said Ashley Alarcon, 17, from Dodge City, Kansas, who will attend the University of New Mexico for chemical engineering.

Michael Frounfelker, a teacher at Stroudsburg High School, and Jerry Skotleski, a teacher at Scranton High School, served as the group's tour guides.

Amy Kaniper, a recent Scranton High School graduate who will attend Harvard University in the fall, spent a week in Sheridan, Wyoming, earlier this month.

While in Wyoming, Kaniper went to the rodeo, attended a country concert and discussed politics with her host family. But even if they didn't agree, they kept the conversation respectful.

"Teens across the United States are not as different as you'd think," she said. "I feel united as a generation. It's cool to feel that way."

For information on the program, visit americanexchangeproject.org.

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