(CNN) – College students, I beg you, forget about studying abroad in Italy or France or China. I know studying overseas is a popular program — more than 300,000 of you immerse yourselves in a foreign culture, usually during your junior year. You get to know another country’s people, its language, and its quirks so you can effectively maneuver on the global stage. Important, yes. But at this divisive time in our own history it’s more important for you to immerse yourselves in…American culture. As in Ohio, Michigan, California, New York, South Carolina or Texas.
Get out of your comfort zone and get to know your fellow Americans. They might not have the same je ne sais quoi, but you will discover something much more important: that we — Americans — are not so different, after all.
If you don’t get where I’m coming from, let’s play a word association game. What comes to mind when you hear “Midwest?” If you live on the East or West coasts, the adjectives that come to mind might not be “friendly” or “hard-working,” but words that are much less complimentary.
I know that because I am a native Ohioan who has lived in New York and now Los Angeles, and I’ve asked that question of young people.
My husband works at Loyola Marymount University — LMU — in Los Angeles, and I talk to students there all the time. I also work with students at my alma mater, Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. So, the intel I’ve gathered for this article comes from the amazing, honest students who attend those universities.
Let’s start out west. Hiranmayi Srinivasan, a senior at LMU, told me her friends describe Middle America as “very conservative,” “white,” “racist,” and “cheese” — yes “cheese.” But the number one phrase she’s heard describing the Midwest is “Trump country,” which has become coastal code for all of the above.
“I always half-jokingly say, that to me, the US is the East Coast and California and I don’t know what’s going on in the middle,” Srinivasan told me. “But as someone who has only ever lived on the coasts, the middle of the country does seem like a foreign place to me.”
That perception, that the Midwest seems “foreign,” in part because it’s “Trump country,” saddens me because it reduces all Midwesterners to a stereotype.
Among those Ohioans who voted for the leading candidates, 54 percent of Ohioans voted for Mr. Trump and 46 percent favored Mrs. Clinton. It means that if you hosted a party with 100 randomly selected attendees, 54 would have voted for Trump, and 46 would have voted for Clinton. The difference is 8 people. If 5 people out of 100 on the Trump side migrated to the Clinton side, Ohio’s red-status would turn blue. These numbers, to my mind, do not define Ohio as Trump country or Clinton country, but as America.
Yet students at Kent State hear they’re from “Trump Country” all the time. Ava Moss, a Kent State senior, is from Cleveland — where Clinton beat Trump by a wide margin. “Those stereotypes,” she told me, “push people to act out. If (people in Coastal America) call Ohioans uneducated some (people) are going to vote out of spite.” A candidate like Trump who seems out of sync with the coastal elites can get their vote.
But people in Middle America stereotype too. Phrases like, “shallow,” “hippie dippy,” “dumb,” and “politically correct to the point of insanity” are just a few samples of what I’ve heard.
Josie Buckingham is a senior at LMU. She’s also from southeast Ohio. “Most of my friends back home think Californians are all just marijuana-smoking liberals,” she told me. California, they tell her, is like a foreign country named “La La Land.”
I don’t blame young people for their stereotypical views, I blame the older generation and partisan media for reducing Americans to cardboard cutout cartoon characters, and states to solid monochromes.
Which brings me back to my plea to college students to experience every part of America. Study abroad, domestically. If you’ve never experienced the middle, southern or coastal America, take a semester or even a week and immerse yourself in a part of America that you do not understand. There are so many great universities in all parts of the country to choose from.
Of course, choosing to enroll at a college in a different part of the country doesn’t mean you can’t also go overseas for a junior year abroad. Both experiences can be life-changing.
Michael Gallagher, a Kent State student from Chicago, is on board. “I’ve studied in Sichuan Province in China, but not Charleston, South Carolina,” he told me. “It would be cool if I could immerse myself in different part of my own country for a while.”
LMU’s Student Body President, Hayden Tanabe, also favors the idea. “One of my favorite quotes of all time is, ‘when the heart is touched by direct experience, the mind may be challenged to change.'”