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WSU students connect with Palouse kids as Pen Friends

By Addy Hatch, WSU Marketing and Communications

Sophie Price figures it had been at least five years since she had written a letter.

You remember letters? Pen, stationery, envelope, stamp.

That changed this spring when Price, a Washington State University sophomore, and her Alpha Phi sorority sisters took part in Pen Friends, exchanging letters with elementary school students each week.

Pen Friends is a project of WSU’s Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) that’s been around more than a decade. About 150 to 180 WSU students take part each spring semester, exchanging letters with elementary school students in the Pullman, Palouse, Potlatch and Colton school districts. WSU students write to the kids and the kids respond the next week.

Amy Robbins, community programs coordinator at CCE, said any WSU student can volunteer, though typically most participants are education majors.

Students go through an orientation and are given six topics to focus on – things like “what’s your favorite food?” and “where would you want to travel?” They’re encouraged to be creative with drawings and stickers, but are expected to hand-write the letters.

Price said the Pen Friends in her sorority write the letters as a group project and go all out in decorating them. “It’s fun to have a break from basic school stuff,” she said.

Santana Ruehl’s fourth-grade students at Jefferson Elementary in Pullman love the program.

She has students whose least favorite subject is writing, “but when it comes time to write a Pen Friends letter, they have no problem writing page after page,” she said.

Kids practice penmanship, but they also learn what might be a dying art of correspondence, Ruehl said. “They learn how to listen to the information that person is sharing with them, build on the information they’re getting and ask deeper questions each week.”

The Pen Friends program helps WSU connect with local communities, and the connection goes both ways, said Brandon Cockburn, a doctoral candidate in the WSU College of Education and community programs graduate assistant in CCE. Kids look up to university students and might remember their Pen Friends connection fondly as they grow.

Said Cockburn, “I think this would have been a cool thing for me to do in elementary.”

In the past, WSU Pen Friends were able to meet the elementary school students during the semester, but that was discontinued because of the pandemic. Robbins said she’d like to get back to doing that.

So does Ruehl’s class. Said the teacher, “A lot of students have asked me since the beginning if they can meet their Pen Friends.”