Graphic by Nigel Mathias

New pen pal groups on campus bring back letter-writing to keep students connected during COVID-19

There’s something incredibly precious about writing and receiving a letter. It’s more deliberate and personal than the quick text messages we send off over the course of our day. A thoughtful, well-written email can come close to the same feeling, but this kind of writing and connection is increasingly becoming a lost art. 

With the pandemic, many are turning towards new forms of communication to maintain connections. However, a number of pen pal groups have popped up on campus during the pandemic, bringing back letter-writing and helping to connect students with each other and the larger Hamilton community.

However, a number of pen pal groups have popped up on campus during the pandemic, bringing back letter-writing and helping to connect students with each other and the larger Hamilton community.

Over the last few months, the Student Wellness Centre has been trying to connect students. They recognize that it may be harder to meet new people, especially for first-year students. One of their initiatives is McMaster Pen Pals.

The idea was initially proposed by Bonnie Liu, a student member on the wellness outreach mental health team, as a way to help connect students volunteering on different teams at SWC. The initiative had a good turnout and served as the trial run for the university-wide program that was launched earlier this year with the help of Taryn Aarssen, a health promoter at the SWC.

“When we had that McMaster Wellness Outreach Teams Pen Pal forum, a lot of people were just like, ‘We just want to hear different perspectives. How are other students handling COVID-19?’,” said Liu.

So far the reception has been extremely positive with a large number of students enrolling in the first round and more continuing to enroll as the year has gone on. They recently closed the second round of their pen pal matching on Nov. 16, 2020, but will continue to match people on an ongoing basis throughout the year.

Their matching process is simple, but sophisticated, relying on questions about common interests. They have also taken care to match first-year students with other first-years, to help foster connections and a stronger sense of community for these new students.

“It’s another way to connect with people and you know that there’s someone who is also looking for that type of connection as well. Could you message someone random and start telling them about yourself to meet someone else? Or is there some value in having something organized, where you know that the person on the other end is also looking to meet someone new and connect that way?” said Aarssen.

“It’s another way to connect with people and you know that there’s someone who is also looking for that type of connection as well.”

Another group on campus, McMaster Pen Pals for Seniors, is focused on connecting students with senior citizens, who have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. Many seniors, especially those living in nursing or retirement homes had to adjust or cancel the family visits due to COVID-19. As a result, many seniors are feeling lonely

Prior to the pandemic, third-year students Sanya Vij and Sophia Zhang were interested in doing outreach to nursing homes. With the arrival of COVID and the accompanying protocols and restrictions, they had to think of ways to alter their approach. 

After some brainstorming and being inspired by a TikTok about pen pals, the pair settled on letter-writing as a possible option. They then began to reach out to retirement homes and hired an executive team, culminating in their launch at the beginning of the school year. For the team, supporting seniors during these times is especially important because they feel that this demographic is often underappreciated. 

“I think seniors have so much to offer. They had so much more life experience and years on this planet than we have . . . I think [students] can learn a lot from their past experiences, whether it’s like jobs, in life and other things . . . [W]e really hope that some of the McMaster students and the seniors form connections with each other and see each other as maybe even friends,” said Zhang.

“[W]e really hope that some of the McMaster students and the seniors form connections with each other and see each other as maybe even friends,” said Zhang.

“[Also] raising an awareness that seniors are people too and it’s possible to connect with anyone at any generation, which is kind of the point that we’re kind of trying to strike home,” added Olivia Dong-Hamilton, the group’s vice president of media.

It is important to the McMaster Pen Pals for Seniors team to bridge the gap between students and seniors and connect their volunteers to a larger sense of community.

“For the volunteers, I hope they learn some compassion for our senior population. And then for the seniors, I just hope they learn that we care about them [and that] we are thinking about them actively,” said Vij.

During these trying times, letter-writing may be just the kind of personal, thoughtful form of creating connections that we need right now because it’s a little closer to the face to face contact that everyone is so dearly missing.

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