Growing up in West Liberty, Iowa, Jose Duran looked forward to receiving letters from his pen pal, a student at The University of Iowa about 20 miles away.
Communicating with the college student “gave me an idea of what college was,” says Duran, now a UI sophomore majoring in health and sport studies. “The experience made an impression on me.”
Today Duran himself is a pen pal to a West Liberty fourth-grade student through the UI Center for Diversity & Enrichment (CDE). It’s one of several campus pen pal programs that connect undergraduates with school-age children in hopes of nurturing college aspirations.
The popular, longtime CDE program this year pairs 89 UI students with fourth-graders in West Liberty, a largely Hispanic school district in which many students will be the first in their families to attend college. Pen pals, who are matched based on common interests, write one letter each month between October and March, sharing details about daily activities, hobbies, and families.
“The children’s questions are very cute,” says Gabriela Rivera, CDE multicultural coordinator. “They want to know what college students do for fun, if the food is good, and if they like their teachers—all things that kids worry about at 9, 10 years old.”
Each April, the young students visit campus for a tour, lunch, and to meet their pen pals in person. Although they live just 20 minutes away, Rivera says many of the students never have an opportunity to see campus.
“One of the goals of the program is to expose the kids to experiences that are very different from what many of them are familiar with,” Rivera says. “We hope it inspires fourth graders to go to college and to realize the importance of staying in school.”
For UI students, pen pal programs offer leadership opportunities and volunteer hours—all prime résumé material. The students also have a chance to serve as role models.
Kevin Farrell, a UI senior from Hoffman Estates, Ill., and a member of Students to Assist Recruitment (STAR), started the Adopt-a-Class pen pal program when a fifth-grade teacher from his suburban Chicago school district contacted the UI Office of Admissions to see if the University would partner with her class.
“I feel like I owe it to a community that gave me so much opportunity to help younger kids see what those opportunities have done for me,” says Farrell, an English major who is earning secondary education certification. “Overall, though, I enjoy knowing how much the kids are getting out of the partnership.”
STAR students write monthly to about 60 elementary students in the school district. And about once a month, the UI students’ mailboxes are filled with colorful, sticker-covered letters from the children. Each January, a group of STAR students visits the classrooms to meet the children in person and answer questions about life as a Hawkeye.
“The educator in me enjoys seeing the change in content throughout the year,” says pen pal Kelli Russell, a UI senior from Urbandale, Iowa, majoring in English and earning secondary education certification. “Sometimes they write about what they’re learning in school or how they want to go to college someday. It’s nice to think that they’re beginning to realize that college is an option for them.”
The pen pal programs not only introduce kids to college, but also promote letter writing—a dying art in the age of electronic communication.
“Teachers really want to keep letter writing part of the curriculum, and we’re glad to help,” Rivera says.
by Madelaine Jerousek-Smith