One morning this spring a group of WSU students from Jeff Petersen’s Communication Studies 321 class fills half of a small lecture hall at Spokane’s Riverpoint campus. They have traveled here from Pullman to meet their pen pals, 5th through 8th graders from the Nespelem Elementary School on the Colville Reservation in north-central Washington. Though they have been communicating with the grade-schoolers by letters throughout the semester, they are meeting for the first time to visit, “play” with science, and talk about going to college.

The Center for Civic Engagement at WSU started the pen pal project last fall. As a part of its mission, the CCE encourages WSU students to extend themselves beyond campus and engage with the community. The Nespelem students, who have a statistically high drop-out rate of about 50 percent for eighth-graders, might benefit from having one-to-one contact with college students, says Vernette Doty, academic programs coordinator in the CCE at WSU.

Ali Smith (left) and her pen pal Mysti Dick
Ali Smith (left) and her pen pal Mysti Dick dive into a science exercise at WSU Spokane. (Photo Robert Hubner)

Nationwide, the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math have a small percentage of minorities. By making “math, science, and learning fun and interesting,” and creating an opportunity for the Nespelem students to interact with college-aged students over these subjects, the younger students are provided “role models for why [they] want to finish school and maybe go on to college,” says Doty.

Kathleen Parker, of the USDA Agricultural Research Service, has been bringing scientists to Nespelem for the past five years to demonstrate science experiments with the kids. Children should be learning science at an early age, she says. That is why she helped develop the pen pal project, which came out of a brainstorming event with Doty, Petersen, and Nespelem teacher Sheri Edwards. “This is a really great moment,” says Parker of the day in Spokane.

Once the introductions are complete, Ali Smith, a senior majoring in sports management, sits with Mysti Dick, a Nespelem 6th grader, and Wayne Richardson, a Nespelem 5th grader, for a slice of pizza. The letters between Smith and the students covered topics like their daily lives and their favorite things. A few letters in, it became evident that Smith and Dick shared a love of sports. Throughout the semester the communication between all the pen pal pairs was monitored by teachers on both ends. Ali sees the letters as more than just a class assignment, however. “Most people wouldn’t have kept up on it,” she says. “But I would have.”

Mysti has been looking forward to meeting her pen pal for weeks. She’s also excited to do the science experiments that are planned for later that afternoon. The whole pen pal experience has shown her that she can meet new people.

After lunch the student pairs head off in different directions. Smith and her pals first do science-based activities. In the next room, the group is playing a game to learn each others’ names. When they arrive at their third activity, Smith’s competitive spirit ensures that she, Dick, and Richardson, are on the move as soon as the treasure hunt begins.

As the day comes to a close and the students regroup in the lecture hall, the closing activity is a surprise planned by the Nespelem students. The children form small groups with their pen pals that slowly morph into one big circle with everyone dancing. The circle dance keeps expanding and expanding until it finally finishes with the students going around the circle and shaking hands and saying goodbye.