November 27, 2007

Letter exchange benefits college, elementary students

About 120 elementary school students will descend on Sacramento State on Monday, Dec. 3, to meet the University pen pals who have been encouraging the younger pupils to follow their lead and start thinking about college now.

The elementary students, from the Elk Grove Unified School District, are in schools considered under-represented, where students are challenged in writing competency, says Sheila Macias, administrative director of the University’s Community Engagement Center.

The program is called Writing Partners, and was launched in 1998 in Texas by a group of graduate students that included Catherine Gabor, who is now a Sacramento State English professor.

Each elementary student has exchanged three to four letters with their Sac State counterparts who are in the University’s Educational Opportunity Program, which serves first-generation and low-income college students, says Marcellene Watson-Derbigny, director of Academic Success and the EOP Learning Communities Program Coordinator.

“Together, the students realize a number of benefits. The University students strengthen their writing skills and the elementary students begin to see college as a real possibility in their future,” Macias says.

In their letters, Sacramento State students might tell their younger counterparts that they’re the first in their families to attend college, or relate what kind of a journey it’s been from grade school to the university, Macias says.

The elementary students share their likes and interests and ask their writing partners what university life is like, Gabor says. A common question asked is whether Sacramento State has recess. “When they hear the answer, they often express how sorry they are for their college writing partners,” Gabor says.

Monday’s gathering will be the first time the two groups meet face to face. The elementary students will arrive at the bus stop in front of the campus between 9:15 and 9:30 a.m., break up into smaller groups and get a tour of the campus. They will then meet their writing partners and participate in a large group activity in classrooms at the University Union.

Sacramento State’s English and nursing departments have participated in the program for about three years and it expanded with the inclusion of EOP last year following the award of a $4,000 Carnegie Foundation grant that got more faculty involved. “The student feedback regarding the event and letter exchange was overwhelmingly positive,” Watson-Derbigny says of last year’s program.

Gabor is extremely pleased with Sacramento State’s development of the program, praising the efforts of EOP and the Community Engagement Center. “We all share a vision of helping youth improve themselves through literacy skills,” Gabor says.

For more information, call the Community Engagement Center at (916) 278-4610. For media assistance, call Sacramento State’s Public Affairs office at (916) 278-6156.