Pen pals at Westfield State University and Westfield Middle School, many of whom had been writing to each other all school year, met in person for the first time on April 26 in the Ely Campus Center.
“This is the first time they’re meeting. It’s a day for pen pals to come and celebrate what they’ve accomplished,” said WSU pen pal coordinator Carlie McIntyre, community relations representative for the Class of 2024. After pairing up, most of the group went outside on the green, where games were set up, and the Canine Learning Center had brought dogs for a visit, to help make the in-person conversations less awkward.
After spending an hour on the green, the middle school students took a guided tour of the campus, followed by lunch at the Dining Commons donated by the university.
McIntyre and another student started the pen pal project, which is in its second full year, late in 2020 as a way to expand relationships between university students and the surrounding community through correspondence, and to bring back the art of letter writing.
Before starting it, McIntyre had participated in a virtual field day project with Westfield Middle School, and she wanted to continue the conversation with the students.
The first year, she and a classmate put out an interest form to Westfield State University students, and 50 signed up. This year, 100 college students signed up to write letters to seventh graders, and all together over 200 students from both campuses participated.
The college students chose the pen pal they would correspond to based on envelopes that they sent in. WMS seventh grade writing teacher Irene Sweigard said she encouraged students to decorate their envelopes with their areas of interest, both in words and pictures.
For example, WSU sophomore Anderson Dallaire, who is studying special education, chose WMS seventh grader Tristan Winslow because of his obvious interest in sports, Winslow having decorated his envelope with different types of sports equipment.
Winslow said he is interested in dirt bikes and sports, especially lacrosse and hockey. The two write to each other on alternating weeks, mostly about sports.
Talking to them just after they met for the first time, Anderson said this is the first time he ever did anything like this. He said he has a younger brother, but they mostly text each other.
Winslow said writing the letters was better than normal class.
Sweigard said part of the value of the pen pal relationship is having students write to a real person with an authentic voice; instead of just writing to their teachers, which they’re used to doing.
Some of the WMS pen pals said the exercise was helping with their writing skills.
Natalie Dansereau, whose pen pal had to head back to her class on campus, said she found the process “really interesting.” She said her pen pal had a different style and thought process than she was used to, and different interests.
“Getting to know someone older is cool. Writing to college students is improving my writing skills,” Dansereau said.
This is the third pen pal experience in the program for Emily Lasek, a WSU junior studying elementary education, who has been paired up with seventh grader Julia Slavin for one semester. She said they write every two weeks on alternating weeks to each other.
“I like working with the older students,” Lasek said, in contrast to her focus at WSU on elementary students. She said they talk about their interests, their personal life, pets, and what trips they’ve gone on.
Lasek said in the beginning they wrote random getting-to-know-you questions, such as: If you could design a Harry Potter wand, which one would you design? Slavin said she would snatch one. Slavin said all the questions in the long letters from Lasek kept up the conversation.
Slavin said the project has also sparked her interest in Westfield State University.
“I might want to come here, if they have a good business major. We talk about teaching,” she said.
McIntyre said having the middle school students visit the campus is another benefit of the program. She said many of the students have never been on campus, even though they live nearby.
Pen pals Elyse Finerty, a nursing major in her junior year at WSU, and Cambrie Cushman, who said she is interested in interior decoration, talked about hobbies, interests, how their school year was going, and vacation plans.
Health science and psychology major Madilyn Silva, a sophomore, and seventh grader Milana Denisyuk enjoyed the letter writing aspect. Milana said she likes to write.
All four made the decision not to describe themselves in their letters, so meeting in person was a total surprise, at least it was for Silva and Denisyuk.
Cushman said she had a vision of what Elyse looked like.
“It was fun,” they all agreed.
Joseph Bonilla, a WSU sophomore studying psychology and gerontology, said for him it was all about the bedazzling. He said he picked seventh grader Mia Burkhead because of her decorated envelope.
“That was me when I was in middle school, aesthetically,” he said.
“It’s been fun. I like to decorate the letters, bedazzle them, be creative. I’m interested in becoming a cosmetologist,” Burkhead said.
Bonilla said Burkhead asked him a lot of questions about the mall.
“I liked learning about Joseph,” she said, adding, it’s different than texting each other.
Sweigard said the students are excited to learn about college students, and the pen pals become a real peer mentor experience.
“It’s a great way to develop writing skills early on. It allows you to take a step back, it centers you, brings you back to where you came from,” Bonilla said, calling it a “humbling” experience.
“It inspires you to find your true purpose in college,” he said, adding that they were both inspired to discover what they had in common, and what they really want to do with their lives.
“Mia is one of the students (pen pals) who takes her letter home, and makes it unique to her,” Sweigard said. She said Burkhead spent a long time on each letter, decorating it and making it special.
“I never got a full piece of paper. It was always cut out,” Bonilla said.