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Can the political divide be mended by bringing rural and urban students together?

In a country fractured by political polarization, an Illinois program is hoping college students can help mend the rift. The University of Chicago and Eureka College created Bridging the Divide to address the harsh rhetoric that emerged from the 2016 election and inspire a generation of leaders by encouraging urban and rural college students to discuss their differences. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Our special series on Rethinking College continues with a look at a unique program that aims to inspire a generation of leaders by bringing rural and urban college students together to talk about their differences.

    Hari Sreenivasan has our report for our regular education segment, Making the Grade.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    It's only a three-hour drive, but it might as well be a world away.

    These urban college students from Chicago are trading skyscrapers for silos, as part of a university program to bring together rural and city students. The University of Chicago and Eureka College created the program, called Bridging the Divide, to address harsh political rhetoric that emerged after the 2016 elections between rural and urban communities.

  • Junius Rodriguez:

    Welcome everybody to Eureka College. We're happy to have you here, and I would like to tell you a little about our campus.

    Just follow me along.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Junius Rodriguez is a history professor at Eureka, a college in politically conservative central Illinois.

    What is the divide about?

  • Junius Rodriguez:

    We have forgotten how to communicate with one another, in so many respects.

    I think that one of the things about modern-day politics is, we make this assumption that anyone on the left believes a kind of rigid philosophy, and anyone on the right believes a rigid philosophy that's never changing.

    And one of the things that this program is getting students to realize is that there's a tremendous amount of nuance that exists.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Leading the program from the Chicago side is David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama and the director of the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics.

  • David Axelrod:

    What is very, very clear is that people in our metropolitan areas, and oftentimes on campuses, view the Trump supporters as toothless, ignorant racists. And that really isn't fair.

    By the same token, you know, it is not right to assume that everyone who opposes Trump is for open borders and are socialists. Also unfair. These are the — these are the caricatures we're trying to penetrate.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Organizers of the Bridging the Divide program hope that educating college students on the hot topics of the day, especially how they are perceived by rural and urban populations, will inspire a better dialogue for the leaders of tomorrow.

    Each school group visits the other's community.

  • Junius Rodriguez:

    We're going to visit something that is called the Reagan Peace Garden.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    On this trip, students from Arrupe College, a two-year degree program in the heart of Chicago, and students from the University of Chicago visited Eureka's campus in rural Illinois.

  • Junius Rodriguez:

    Ronald W. Reagan was a student here at your Eureka College, graduated in June of 1932.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    One of the Republican Party's greatest icons, President Ronald Reagan, is a graduate of Eureka. During these visits, conservative and liberal-leaning students are pushed to talk about their different perspectives.

  • David Axelrod:

    They are skeptical about politics and the direction of things, but they're not cynical. And they really believe that they have the capacity to change things.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The students also watched focus groups, one, a group of Trump voters from a rural community, and the other a group of Hillary Clinton voters from the city. Political opinions ran deep. We were asked not to identify focus group participants.

  • David Axelrod:

    Do you think it's fair to say that the both of the groups we saw in some ways lived in a bubble?

    What was what was your reaction?

  • Student:

    I noticed with both of like the focus groups how closed-minded each of the parties are. They both talked about how the only way to bridge the divide is to sit down and talk, but they both kind of raised the issue that the other party doesn't want to talk.

  • David Axelrod:

    You first.

  • Student:

    There is just a lot of fear-mongering, and I think that was evident in the way that they discussed illegal immigrants, just the fear-mongering that takes place.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The students heard hurtful stereotypes in both groups they watched. Some rural students heard participants from the Hillary Clinton supporter focus group describe their communities in ways that they felt were offensive.

  • Hunter Lane:

    They definitely didn't understand what I'm about. They never met me, but they dropped words like uneducated and ignorant.

  • Charls Mangold:

    They almost stereotyped us down here as, like, sexist, racist for being a Trump supporter.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    While some urban students felt issues surrounding race were dismissed.

  • Egypt Watson:

    I think coming from their perspective, they were saying, well, we don't see color, we see everybody as equal.

    If you don't see my color, then I feel like you don't see me. Ignoring a person's self-identity is not helping the policies that have been implemented that hurts black and brown communities.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Each focus group was followed by deep dives into hot-topic issues, like immigration and job security. Community leaders in both urban and rural settings led tours of homeless shelters, job training sites, and immigration centers, engaging students in lively discussions.

  • Claire Matheny:

    I think it's just nice for them to come down and see our side of things, like, our small-town minds, because we are Republicans. Chicago is blue, but the rest of Illinois is red. And I just think it's nice for them to get our perspective on things and how we see Trump.

  • Mateo Olvera-Sandoval:

    I sort of got this feeling of maybe I wouldn't be welcomed in an area like this, a rural area where maybe they have not had much experience with a Hispanic person. But I haven't experienced it.

    One thing that I get sort of a sense of is a sense of community, and how a lot of people really rely on each other, more than they rely on, like, public aid or governmental aid. They say, like, yes, we really pride ourselves on knowing our neighbors and helping each other out, if need be.

  • Dessa O’Neal:

    I think knowing when to speak and knowing when to listen is a big tool that I'm gaining here.

    The students that I'm interacting with, my opinions differ from theirs. And I am learning how to keep that to myself at certain points, and to also discuss it at certain points, in order to understand more about why we feel differently and what sort of shapes that.

  • Hunter Lane:

    My favorite thing that I have got to do is talk to the people from Chicago. I mean, like, they're insightful, and they're willing to listen and converse. And I think that, if this group of people right now were to step into Congress tomorrow, we could change a lot of things and make the world a better place, honestly.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Organizers Axelrod and Rodriguez agree.

  • David Axelrod:

    For those who are depressed about the future, it's a real tonic to see the relationships unfold between these kids and this kind of awakening about a world larger than their own silo.

  • Junius Rodriguez:

    Politics is the art of the possible. And to be able to make that happen, you have to have this willingness to dream, but you have also got to be willing to engage, and you have got to be persistent.

    You can't give up on the system. And we're hoping that's what they pick up.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan in Eureka, Illinois.

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