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Yale 62

Pen Pals

By John Hatch


John HatchPen Pals programs have been around for generations. During the NYC World Fair, Parker Pen and Quik Ink joined forces to establish a center for matching pen pals. I took advantage of that and invited my students in Kahama, Tanzania to copy and fill out the form, which I then mailed, all 80+ of them, off to Parker. Within in a year and a half they all had “pals,” some more than one. Two came to me after receiving letters asking: ”Suh, what does blonde hair and blue eyes look like?” — try answering that effectively with no examples, media or otherwise available!

My recent pen pal engagement has been as part of a program to engage secondary students in exchanges with seniors electronically. Because of the county’s concern about student privacy, all correspondence has to go through the sponsoring agency, so we only know of each other by first names. The agency does the matches using a form for both students and seniors, and the student’s statement of interest in participating became the first “letter” I responded to.

Exchanges went on with my first student for close to a year, telling each other what we are up to and responding both to comments made and direct questions — we usually asked at least one question to prod/focus a response. My garden’s progress or lack thereof, college application/attendance/career choices and paths were constant themes for me, and he wrote about family, college questions of all kinds, cultural experiences (he was from Cambodia) such as holidays, meals, family roles as well as cross-cultural issues. My newest pal is from Malaysia but he and his family have been here for more years so we’re dealing with his anxieties about college (UT is his prime choice) and his Eagle Scout project (Covid face masks!), while I have, so far, employed the garden and learning Pickleball as themes, as well as my checkered Scouting experiences.

What do we get out of this, you might wonder. Studies and purposes of similar programs have documented the rise of similar programs across the country and abroad. They are usually started as a way of continuing mentoring programs closed by the pandemic and/or keeping students occupied and engaged. They have grown to be recognized for their helpfulness in breaking pandemic isolation and lack of engagement with others, helping the seniors as much as the students. My program grew out of a way the agency’s mentoring program might continue during the pandemic when face-to-face meetings weren’t possible, but has expanded to target both populations.

“I never want you to feel like our messages are pointless because, for me, they are the best thing in the world. They’re like an outlet where I can be myself and be accepted no matter what, and I couldn’t have asked for anything better in the whole world. You always had faith in me when no one else did, you gave me the best guidance I could ask for when it came to leadership, family stuff, and even life subjects.”

For my part, particularly as a former college admissions officer and many years of involvement in international education, I have enjoyed the mentoring role. I enjoy it especially because it can be done through reflection, personal examples, and questioning rather than through the more normal direct and immediate give-and-take of being in-person, where body language becomes another factor — back to the letter writing of our formative days! Like letter writing, I can respond when I am ready, and can think out my response. I suppose that not having been an active part of my grandchildren’s upbringing, I may be enjoying some of what I’d hoped to have been able to do on that score, as I do miss interacting with kids.

If you are not likewise engaged and are interested, check with your local schools and senior centers to see whether similar programs exist in your area.


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