Reflection: The Unique Pen Pal Friendship

I was fascinated with pen pals as a child. In third grade, my elementary school began exchanging letters with a grade school in Belarus, and we each received letters from a student and were tasked with writing back. I still have my letter from my pen pal. It was one of the most exciting experiences of my life to read words from a little girl from halfway across the world. I loved how her world was so different from mine, and yet in so many ways, we were so similar.

Over sixteen years later, I felt that same excitement when we participated in COIL (Collaborated Online International Learning) to chat with university students in Cali, Colombia over Skype and Facebook for the term. It came with a little more nervousness, because you can hide yourself behind a paper and pen in a way you can’t on screen. Both my partners and I felt that at first. But my nervousness funneled into vocal energy, peppering them with questions until the conversation came easy.

The same old excitement began to grow then. Their worlds were so different from mine; both of my partners asked what it was like to move from my native Pacific Northwest to go to school thousands of miles away. They both had long city commutes, where I have never gone to school anywhere more than five minutes from home. They were concerned about traveling to certain countries due to racism and xenophobic trends, something I have never worried about personally. And their power went out regularly, interrupting our conversations twice. They complained about the heat while I showed them the feet of snow outside my window.

But we were pretty similar in more ways than one. All three of us were studying or spoke the same languages: Spanish, French, and English. All three of us wanted to travel, pretty much everywhere. We bonded over our love of the singer Adele, and how we would love to see her sing in her native England. We talked about our favorite chocolate treats. They both expressed nervousness for the United States’ volatile political environment – I told them I was too. We introduced each other to our pets, talked about our favorite subjects, what festivals we went to, what we cared about, what scared us, and frequently told each other to come visit us in our respective countries.

But like my Belarusian pen pal from third grade, eventually, I didn’t respond. I got caught up in whatever third graders do that makes them so busy (I have no idea, but I remember never “getting around to it.”) In my case this term, I got caught up in projects, plans, and programs for school. In my last conversation with both of my partners I apologized for how long we had gone without talking, but they, like me, where busy students too. Bonding over our chaotic schedules and demanding study regimens opened the conversation right back up and in one case, I had to cut our conversation off at two and a half hours because I had to leave for work. I asked both partners if we could stay in touch after the class ended, and both agreed.

I think the excitement from third grade and at the start of COIL this term was the prospect of making friendships despite all the differences, which includes what country you might reside in and what language you speak. Against all odds of ever meeting, one person thousands of miles away is talking to another and making memories that you might carry for years. The differences and the similarities built the connection between the participants; both provide more than enough discussion that creates a shared experience, whether it’s learning about what Holy Week meals involve, or talking about our mutual concerns for our native peoples’ rights and sovereignty in our respective countries.

But with both of my partners, even if we didn’t agree on something, we never questioned each other’s truths because we entered the conversation knowing that we lived very differently and got excited over our differences instead. It’s something I feel that is usually unique to pen pals – you don’t question the differences at all. But why should we question the differences ever? Why can’t the differences and similarities spark and foster the relationships with your next-door neighbor just as easily as they do with my Colombian Skype-Pals?

If that’s not a lesson we can carry beyond this experience into our daily lives, I don’t know what is.

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