Being a pen pal is about connecting with a stranger and building a friendship through the exchange of letters.

The University of Guelph is putting a contemporary spin on the practice with a new digital Pen Pal Program beginning in the fall semester. It will help first-year students make connections as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Set to start just before the first week of classes and run throughout the semester, the program was conceived by U of G psychology student Alyssa Ahmed, president of the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences Student Alliance.

“I think this will be a great help to first-year students,” Ahmed said. “Due to the pandemic, much of the social aspect is gone. They can’t strike up a conversation with someone they sit next to in class, at the library, during intramurals or with someone they’re in a residence hall with. The hope of the pen pal program is to help first year students meet someone they can connect with.”

Ahmed said the project will help new students make a friend who understands what they are going through and can provide support through regular communication.

“It’s important to have someone to talk to who is going through the same adjustment into university, especially since they will be part of an academic year unlike anything anyone has ever gone through before. Having someone to talk to will assure them that they aren’t alone.”

Ahmed connected with student organizations in all U of G colleges; all are collaborating on the project. The groups will jointly organize the kick-off event, promote the program and communicate with students. Promotion will take place during Orientation Week. Organizers are planning an event to allow pen pals to meet, learn more about the project and feel more at home at the University.

The campus organization GryphLife will provide an online form for students to provide their area of study and interests. The information will be used to match student participants and pen pals in mid-September.

“Once students are matched up, we will send them the information on who their match is and their email, as well as a template email and conversation starters,” said Ahmed. “If they decide they would like to stay in contact in other ways, that is certainly all right and at their total discretion.”

A similar U of G program called LINK pairs a U of G student with an international or exchange student for a semester to help newcomers adjust to life at the University, said Ahmed.

Ahmed is confident that strong and lasting friendships can be established through the internet.

“Generation Z is tech-savvy, and communication over social media is part of their everyday lives.”

To learn more about what the U of G student experience looks like this fall, visit the Virtual Campus page.


Alyssa Ahmed