Transylvania’s new pen pal program opens opportunities across borders closed by pandemic

Courtney Smith

Courtney Smith’s mom and grandmother both had pen pals. She did too, back in high school.

So it’s no surprise Transylvania University’s director of global and intercultural engagement dusted off that way of exploring the world at a time when we can’t physically explore the world.

Smith ’16 is pulling from her extensive global connections to match overseas students with those at Transylvania. 

With the university having to temporarily halt its study abroad programs because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she realized a lot of Transy students would be missing out on the benefits that come with traveling to another country. “We had a large number of students signed up to go abroad — the biggest summer number we’ve had,” she said.

So she’s signing them up to be pen pals with students in central Europe, where some students from Transylvania had planned on teaching English through the Transy in Slovakia program. The Slovakian students were looking forward to the visit — so when they heard about the potential pen pals “they were all excited with the idea of still getting to know American students,” Smith said.

If she gets a huge response, she’ll expand the program to Chile, where she knows students interested in learning more about attending college in the U.S. 

In addition to pairing these pen pals up, Smith will give them conversation ideas (although they can talk about whatever they’d like). Also, since postcards or letters might take weeks to arrive, they’ll be corresponding via email, Whatsapp or Facebook messenger — so, as with many things these days, this pen pal system is virtual.

It’s a good opportunity for students in both countries to learn about a different culture and discuss things like how their schools and families are handling the radical change to their daily routines. And maybe these newfound friendships will encourage Transy students to study abroad after the COVID-19 pandemic abates.

Reaching out to others also helps alleviate isolation as we physically distance ourselves from each other.

Long before the coronavirus outbreak, Smith was pen pals with a Spanish student she was planning to stay with through an exchange program. “I always loved sending messages to her and getting to know her and her family before I went,” she said. And Smith still values the many virtual connections she’s kept up over the years with others throughout the world.

Now she’s helping current students foster their own connections abroad.

“I want to make sure students have a way to reach out across borders, even though they’re physically closing,” Smith said. “It’s a really unique way for them to learn about another culture and expand their worldview while they’re stuck at home.”

Transylvania students interested in the pen pal program should contact Smith at cesmith@transy.edu.