December 15, 2016
LIVONIA, Mich. — Madonna University students and elementary school students in southwest Detroit are friends on paper as well as real life.
For the past three years, groups of Madonna students in the University 1010 (UNV1010) course, have been writing to elementary school students in southwest Detroit as part of the service-learning hours required for the course. In return, the grade schoolers get to practice their writing skills, learn more about the possibility of attending college, and spend time with their pen pal during several in-person visits.
Nicole Nagy, director of Madonna University’s First-Year Experience program, said the pen pal initiative has grown in the past few years from one class section of Madonna students corresponding with students in one elementary classroom, to multiple Madonna classes writing to children in a number of elementary schools. Altogether, there are about 400 students in second through fifth grade who write to Madonna students over the course of fall semester, with each pair of pen pals writing two or three times and each Madonna student writing to several younger students.
Madonna students and elementary school students visited each other’s schools over the course of the semester. At Madonna, they played holiday-themed word games, explored campus, and got to know each other a bit better. “Our Madonna students are excited to hang out with their pen pals,” said Nagy.
While the students may not know what to write at first, Nagy says she’s noticed letters get more personal and friendly as the semester progresses. For many of the elementary students, English isn’t their first language, and they all enjoy talking about their favorite sport or Pokemon character, or the upcoming holidays.
In addition to gaining practice in reading and writing, the elementary students’ teachers agreed that the program had many benefits. Some of the elementary students had good questions for the college students. According to Thomas Cieslik, who teaches fourth-grade math, they discussed things they might not have known about previously, such as taking night classes. “College is part of the conversation,” he said.
Kaity Nicastri, a social worker and community school site coordinator who works with elementary schools through the nonprofit Southwest Solutions, said it’s good for children to see young adults attending college; often, the only college grads they know are their teachers and older people. “They don’t meet college students or grads that often,” she said.
The pen pal activity is a fun service-learning project for the Madonna students, and serving others is a major focus of the mission of Madonna University. “Living our mission is the reason students take part in service-learning projects in their UNV1010 class,” Nagy said. “We are creating a love for service during their first semester, so they want to continue to do it.”