Pen Pals Enhance Civic Agency and Connections During Pandemic

Guest blogger Sonia Kinkhabwala ’21 shares the story of how Pen Pals went from an idea to a program in a few days during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In acclimating to my new community of Williamsburg, one of the first things that burned bright in my mind was the age demographics in town. College students and older adults reside in a cozy town beaming with ideas and big dreams, each in a new chapter of life.  I envisioned how intergenerational connections would enhance the lived experiences of both older people and younger people.

With support from Elizabeth Miller in The Office of Community Engagement, I was able to connect with Emily, another student who was also passionate about intergenerational connection. Emily and I worked with assisted living communities to connect. We were committed to creating spaces for students and seniors to learn about one another. The program has been a tremendous success. I am sustained by the moments of joy that come with every intergenerational experience. It is in a student saying that she is “her best self” when with residents, hearing the laugh of a usually quiet resident, and being able to share space with those who defy the stereotype of aging.

several students collaboratively working at laptops

Sonia Kinkhabwala and Cameron How hard at work last semester on their CAP project.

This year I am a fellow with the  Civic Agency Project (CAP), an undergraduate think tank led by Professors John Lombardini and Drew Stelljes, and graduate assistant, Krista Schroth. The academic experience focuses on issues of civic engagement and democratic leadership. In CAP, I found the perfect opportunity to explore my interest and practice in meaningful community engagement through an academic lens. I developed a research project centered on understanding the effect of intergenerational relationships on feelings of civic agency in both older adults and younger people. My core belief that deep, meaningful human connection between those of different ages cultivates empathy and is an important component of positive social change fueled this project. The project was set to unfold and then plans were halted due to the outbreak of COVID-19.

As I adjusted to living at home and online courses, I felt a sense of helplessness in the face of the global pandemic that was threatening the physical and mental health, economic well-being, and daily lives of millions. I felt especially concerned for older adults involved in my programming, as well as my own grandparents, who are experiencing heightened social isolation and vulnerability to the virus. As CAP resumed online I reframed my CAP work and translated my programming into a pen-pal program between older adults in assisted living communities and W&M students.

Sonia and Cameron whiteboarding ideas.

Sonia and Cameron designing their civic agency project.

As I began to work on developing the program, Professor Lombardini connected me with another student, Mary Pelson. Mary was also interested in a pen-pal idea and had been working with Brookdale Williamsburg. Together, Mary and I coordinated with three assisted living facilities in Williamsburg as well as the Williamsburg Department of Human Services. The product of these efforts is an initiative in which members of the William & Mary community send letters to older adults in great need in senior living communities. The residents write students back and the pen-pal relationship based in connection ensues.

Thanks to W&M students and Williamsburg residents, this program has blossomed from an idea to a tangible form of standing together as a community through the crisis.  We have currently matched 120 students, and as I write this, we have 150 total sign-ups.

While I have reveled in the pure kindness, empathy, and enthusiasm of the William & Mary community since my first days on campus, I could never have expected this response. When I give tours of W&M to prospective students and families, I often describe William & Mary as a community where, when you reach out, people reach back in friendship and compassion. This pen-pal program has once again proved this to be true, as William & Mary students and Williamsburg residents reach out across the barriers of age and location to carry each other through a period of unforeseen difficulty. I am so grateful to be a small part of this grand exercise in connection.

Categories: Campus Life, Community Engagement & Service, Diversity, Student Blogs, Student Leadership Development, Williamsburg
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