A decade separates University of Iowa sophomore Rachel Revelez and West Liberty Elementary School fourth grader Brian Collins.
Yet the two have discovered they share much in common—an appreciation for Hawkeye football; a love of reading, especially The Hunger Games; and an affinity for listening to their favorite tunes on their iPods. (Though, as Collins learned, he prefers the music of Pitbull and Katy Perry, and Revelez relishes alternative rock tunes from bands like Panic! At the Disco.)
After exchanging letters for six months, the two met officially in person May 1 as part of the UI Center for Diversity and Enrichment Pen Pal Program, a partnership that matches UI students with elementary-age children in Eastern Iowa school districts.
Mentors and role models
The partnership between the Center for Diversity and Enrichment in the UI Chief Diversity Office and grade schools in Cedar Rapids, Sioux City, Waterloo, and West Liberty, has matched more than 1,500 elementary students with UI students serving as positive mentors and role models since the program’s inception in 1996.
Collins, a 10-year-old sporting a Mohawk hairstyle and dressed in a white sweat shirt, jeans, and sneakers, flashed a shy smile at Revelez as he came out of the UI Old Capitol Museum along with 89 other students who had just wrapped up a morning tour.
“I’m Rachel. It’s nice to see you in person!” Revelez said as she shook Collins’ hand, and walked with him over to Currier Residence Hall where they dined on ham and cheese sandwiches, oranges, Doritos, chocolate chip cookies, and bottled water. Though Revelez had met Collins while working at the West Liberty Library years earlier, he was too young to remember the encounter.
More Pen Pals invited to volunteer
University of Iowa full-time students who are interested in volunteering to be a Pen Pal can learn more by reading this related story.
The elementary students were finally getting the chance to meet with their volunteer matches after exchanging five or six letters since the fall.
The experience culminated with the half-day trip to campus. Highlights included participating in bilingual creative activities with the chemistry and Spanish and Portuguese departments and an interactive session with the UI physics department. The students also toured the UI Museum of Natural History and the Old Capitol Museum—and, most important of all, they had lunch with their Pen Pals.
“So did you know that I’m 20? That’s twice your age,” Revelez joked as they strolled together on campus.
“Wow, that’s pretty old,” Collins responded with a grin.
While the two talked about hobbies and interests, such as their mutual enjoyment of playing Xbox and soccer, the topic turned to Collins’ future.
“What do you think you’d like to do when you grow up?” Revelez asked.
“I’d like to be a park ranger because I like learning about the environment, and I like to hunt, too,” Collins replied, adding he plans to go to college and the UI is on his radar.
Collins also learned Tuesday that Revelez shared the same experience as he did when she was a fourth grader at West Liberty Elementary School. Revelez’s participation in the Pen Pal Program in 2002 cemented her love of the university and set her on a path to becoming a Hawkeye.
“Though both of my parents started college, neither of them finished,” says Revelez, a UI Honors Program student and elementary education major who would like to teach in her hometown of West Liberty.
Collins’ parents didn’t attend college either. As he and Revelez talked, they discovered yet another commonality that hadn’t emerged from their letter exchanges.
“We also found out that both Brian and I are half Hispanic,” Revelez says. “I am half Mexican on my dad's side, and he is half Salvadoran on his mom's side. I didn't know that about him.”
Diverse reflections of reality
Revelez believes it’s critical for students such as Collins to see reflections of their diverse realities in positions of leadership, which is part of the reason she chose to pursue education.
“Teachers are some of the biggest role models in many students’ lives. In elementary school, most kids spent more time with their teacher than they do with their parents,” she says. “Teachers are always working to shape and define our society to the best of their abilities, yet they are often not recognized for their efforts.”
Teaching will provide Revelez with the opportunity to be that role model for students.
“I think it’s incredibly important for students of all races and ethnicities to have role models from similar backgrounds. Having been fortunate enough to grow up in West Liberty, I was always surrounded by role models of a background similar to myself,” she says.
“I know that not everyone is that fortunate, however. Being able to see someone who looks like you, believes what you believe, or is from the same background as you in a role model position means a lot.”
Another surprise twist to the recent Pen Pal visit day is that Revelez was reunited with the Pen Pal she had been matched with a decade ago: Jade Silva, who is now a counseling specialist in the Center for Diversity and Enrichment. Silva, of Muscatine, Iowa, was a UI Spanish major when she was matched as Revelez’s Pen Pal in 2002.
“I enjoyed getting my letters from Rachel and reading what her experiences were like,” says Silva, who was matched with several students over the course of her college career. “It was really fun to read from the perspective of fourth graders because the smallest things are a big deal. It was refreshing to realize that sometimes in life, the small
things are pretty cool.”
The experience broadened Silva’s perspective, too.
“It was also a way for me to communicate and learn how to write so that a fourth grader could understand. It was a challenge to realize that they may not understand what a sorority is or what a TA means,” Silva says. “It made me feel great that I was giving back and being a role model, especially since my Pen Pals were Latinos, I felt that I was being that face that they often don’t get to see at the college level.”
Ironically, the day Revelez came to campus for her Pen Pal Program visit, Silva was unable to meet with her because she had class. “Looking back, I wish I would have skipped class to go meet her,” Silva says with a twinge of regret.
Eight years later, Silva got her chance. She was working in the UI Office of Admissions and giving a presentation to a group of students from West Liberty.
“Rachel was a senior in high school, and we were waiting for the room to be unlocked, and she looked at me and said, ‘Did you do the Pen Pal Program?’” Silva recalls. “I said that I did, and she replied, ‘I think you were my Pen Pal.’ That is when I really took in her face and it hit me, ‘Oh wow!’ It all rushed back to me, and I remembered her picture that she had sent me. We talked about how big she had gotten and how it was unreal that she recognized me and remembered. I think at that moment is when I realized that it all does come full circle and even if it was just writing a letter, she remembered it.”
The two embraced quickly over lunch on Tuesday, and then rushed back to their respective responsibilities—Revelez dining with Collins, and Silva helping ensure that all of the students had found their Pen Pals and had their proper sack lunches delivered.
Planting the college seed
Even though Revelez didn’t get to meet Silva in person that day back in 2002, the Pen Pal Program made an indelible impact on her life.
“While both my parents had always pushed the idea of college on me growing up, I think the Pen Pal Program gave the University of Iowa a face,” Revelez says. “It was just a school that my parents kept telling me I would attend someday so it was a real place where my Pen Pal went. When you’re in fourth grade, college seems a long way off, because it is, but this program helps to make that far away goal feel more real and attainable.”
Revelez hopes she made that same impact on Collins.
“It was great meeting Brian and seeing all the fourth graders on campus,” Revelez says. “They all seemed excited to be there and to be experiencing the UI. I love that this program gives these students a chance to experience college at such a young age. It's important to plant the college seed in young students' minds, and I think this program does an excellent job of doing that.”