In the 21st century, the United States has experienced a weakening social contract between citizens and their governing institutions, festering animosity between different cultural factions, fatigue of the democratic process, and an overall decline in citizenship and civility. These challenges have damaged the American psyche, turning famously optimistic and forward-looking people towards more negative emotions over the future of the grand American experiment. Bold and energized policymaking is necessary to reverse the decline of the American social fabric. To reinvigorate a sense of American community, the US should look to its European partners across the Atlantic for inspiration in developing a youth education initiative modeled after the famously successful ‘Erasmus’ program, while using the example of the iconic Native American explorer, Sacagawea, for a uniquely American experience. 

The European Erasmus program was introduced in 1987 as an exchange program for higher education studies. Named after the famous Dutch intellectual of the Renaissance who traveled across central Europe gathering and sharing knowledge, the program’s primary purpose was to provide youth within the European Community the opportunity to spend a semester or year of their studies in another country. In the nearly 40 years since its introduction, over 13 million people have taken part in what is today known as the Erasmus+, an expanded program that includes academic, training, apprenticeship, and sports opportunities for students and teachers of all age groups. The program has also served as a useful tool that has strengthened ties between the linguistically and culturally diverse nations of what is now the European Union (EU) helping to boost, in some views, European identity among program participants. 

In comparison to its European counterpart, which seeks to create a common European identity, this American program would seek to promote educational experiences between diverse regions to reconnect communities whose links have been stretched and weakened over the changes of the past decades. In that time, globalization has led to a hallowing out of the country’s manufacturing base, leaving millions in broad swaths of the country with fewer economic opportunities and a sense of relative decline. Continuous technological transformations have also led to an increasingly fractured population, consuming wildly different media and news, and siloing themselves into like-minded echo chambers. Such changes have negatively affected some Americans’ ability to communicate with others. In a 2021 Pew Research poll, nearly 60 percent of Americans surveyed said it was stressful to discuss politics with others. These findings coincide with a rise of incivility in the American political space — liberal and conservative Americans viewing each other in an increasingly hostile manner.

America’s ‘Sacagawea’ program could help bridge this growing divide within the US. During their Sacagawea experience, students would earn universally recognized academic credits as visiting students in their host institution, while receiving financial support from the program to live and integrate themselves into the host community. Additional incentives to encourage students to opt for destinations outside of their comfort zones would be a strategic way of connecting parts of the country with different cultures, politics, and ways of life. A student from the small town of Peterborough, New Hampshire, for instance, should be incentivized to discover a big city in another region, such as the South. Similarly, a student from San Francisco, California, may have more to gain from a semester in a smaller community in Wisconsin or Iowa, instead of staying on the West Coast. Promoting these inter-state and inter-region connections within a diverse country would foster a greater sense of appreciation for the diversity within the US, as well as a greater sense of civic belonging among its young citizens. 

Some may call into question the need for such a program in the US, which as a single country, has less obvious differences than the linguistically and culturally diverse nations of the EU. Traveling throughout the country, however, the size of the transcontinental nation becomes more and more imposing, including the sometimes stark differences between communities and regions. Introducing this educational program would send the message that each citizen is a shareholder in the country as a whole, and has the right to explore, appreciate, and benefit from the diversity within it. 

As with Europe’s Erasmus+, America’s Sacagawea program, while starting as a tool to restitch the American social fabric, can also be built upon and expanded beyond students to include other parts of American life, such as teachers, academics, public servants, and others. Moreover, if successful, this program could have the potential to expand internationally, serving as a tool to connect Americans to neighbors in the countries of the Western Hemisphere and beyond. 

The US should embrace its heritage as an optimistic, dynamic, and forward-looking nation by establishing a program that promotes the best of America’s qualities among its youth. By learning from the successes of the EU’s own Erasmus+ program and taking inspiration from past American figures who explored unfamiliar places, the US could begin to restitch its social fabric, one Sacagawea experience at a time. 

Written by Sergio Uribe Henao, Edited by Viktor Kharyton

Photo Credit: WikimediaCommons