The PenPal Project

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University of Colorado junior Lilian Garcia is bringing back the idea of writing to strangers who live far away — penpals, but with an international and technologically advanced twist.

Garcia is working to bring students together from CU and El Instituto Tecnológico Superior de Zacapoaxtla, or ITSZ, in Zacapoaxtla, Puebla, Mexico, through the Penpal Project, which she started this semester.

The concept is simple, Garcia said. CU students pair up with ITSZ students, and they write back and forth to help improve the ITSZ students' conversational English.

Garcia said she also hopes the project will build meaningful international relationships between students at the two schools as society becomes more global.

The CU and ITSZ students will communicate mostly by email or Facebook — a modern twist on writing letters.

The idea for the project came to Garcia last summer while visiting relatives in Mexico. One of her uncles, a professor at ITSZ, suggested Garcia and her brother come back over spring break and tutor ITSZ students in English.

But before visiting again, Garcia wondered about creating relationships with the students before she arrived by talking with them online. Garcia started recruiting other CU students, and now between 25 and 30 CU students are participating, she said.

"We felt if we spoke with the students about common interests, our daily lives, it would make them more interested in learning English and motivate them to practice it," Garcia said.

Garcia has been working with Gaby Valera, an English language teacher at ITSZ, who provides the penpals with topics for discussion.

Many of the Mexican students have few opportunities to talk to people who speak English fluently, so teaching the language can be difficult, she said.

"By having a real contact with the language and with native English speakers, they may become more interested in learning the language with this being a fun way," Valera wrote in an email. "They will search for information and study by themselves on their English and our classes will become better."

For Garcia, who's studying chemical engineering and applied math, knowing people around the world is helpful for networking and finding a job after graduation, she said.

By spring break, Garcia said she hopes a handful of CU students can visit their penpals in Zacapoaxtla, a city roughly three hours northeast of Mexico City. She has started an online fundraising page to help with the cost of the program and spring break trip.

CU sophomore Magnolia Landa-Posas grew up speaking both English and Spanish at home. Because it can be more difficult to learn a new language later in life, Landa-Posas said she thinks the penpal program will give the ITSZ students room to make mistakes and practice their English in a comfortable setting with their peers.

"It allows more for everyday conversation, more interaction between students that are the same age," she said. "It's more relaxed and allows the students to feel more free to be able to make mistakes and be corrected by somebody instead of just reading from textbooks all the time."

Manu Fernandez, 19, is studying industrial engineering at ITSZ.

He said he feels learning English is essential for him to be able to compete internationally for engineering jobs.

"We live in a globalized world where we need to be in constant communication with other people," Fernandez wrote in an email. "It's now essential to (know) more than one language to compete with other people or to have a job in any international company. Sometimes we fear learning new things, but in the end, learning gives us better preparation to pursue our dreams."

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