Author: Elizabeth Figueroa, Project Coordinator, CommUniverCity San José
“When do I get to meet my pen pal? Who is my pen pal? Do you know who my pen pal is?”
These are all questions asked in rapid succession by multiple students just about every time I visited Anne Darling Elementary’s campus over the past four months.
Since the beginning of their school year, Anne Darling students have been writing to pen pals from San Jose State University. Last week, they met their Writing Partners in person for the first time and the show was spectacular. Writing Partners is a CommUniverCity program that works to instill a college-going college at the Elementary school level.
Forty-five Anne Darling Elementary students were greeted by a wall of white CommUniverCity t-shirts worn by forty-two San José State University English 1A and 1B students. We dove right into an ice breaker where each SJSU Mentor repeated something they’d written in a letter and Anne Darling students guessed based on the information provided whether or not that was the person they’d been writing to all semester long.
After the ice breaker, the SJSU Mentors transformed into tour guides and took Anne Darling students to their favorite spots on campus. Spots included KSJS (the campus radio station), a biology lab, the new Student Union, the Aquatic Center and the Campus Village quad.
During lunchtime, the conversations continued and the mentors found it hard to leave.The power of a connection between college students and elementary students became relevant to the parent chaperones as they looked on in amazement at the interaction between the two. “This is so creative,” said one parent chaperone. “I never would have thought of this. It’s great for kids to visit a college, but it’s a much more impactful experience when they get to see it with a student who is enrolled in that college.”
To close the day, Anne Darling students were treated to a tour of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library. Of the 45 elementary students in attendance only two had ever been to King Library. After today, they know just about everything on navigating a San José Public Library; and so do the four parent chaperones who attended. Post-tour conversations among the parents revolved around having big dreams and ambitions for their kids and this has given them even more motivation to be involved in their student’s education.
So Close to Home
Just like lunch, the roar on the 15 minute bus ride home was difficult to drown out. The students were in awe of everything they’d seen during the day. One parting statement as they unboarded the bus was, “We’re here already?” This was an opportunity to remind them, and the parent chaperones, that they live in close proximity to a university and are free to visit it with their family any time.
The Digital Age
Because of scheduling conflicts and testing schedules, one of the four participating Anne Darling classes was unable to meet in person, so we did the next best thing: we set up a video call between the SJSU mentors and the Anne Darling third graders. Very similar the to the face-to-face meeting, college students and elementary students alike were shy to meet each other for the first time. After a couple of warm up questions, one Anne Darling student even sang a song, flawlessly, at her Writing Partner’s request. The song was from the Aladdin play the student will be participating in later this month. Were it not for the relationship they built over the semester, it may never have come up during this video call.
Favorite Part of the Class
For these English 1A and 1B students from a range of majors across campus, this project is one of their first service learning and community engagement experiences. Project lead Priya Banwait recently received a Community Engagement and Service Learning Award. During her acceptance speech, she relayed what her students over the past four semesters have expressed: that Writing Partners was their favorite part of the class.
More in Depth
Writing Partners was initiated 3 years ago. On its face, it is a pen pal program, but the layers go a little deeper. Anne Darling’s population is one where over 80% of students are either English Learners, socioeconomically disadvantaged, or come from low-income homes. Many of the parents do not hold a college degree and many of them hold multiple jobs. Having a Writing Partner who is in college helps participants build a positive relationship and also makes college an attainable goal and not just something they heard about once upon a time in school.