The Tibetan Pen Pal Project: Joy and Learning

What happens when American students from a multicultural, urban high school begin corresponding with Tibetan teens in India? Read on to find out!

A few months ago, I received a Facebook friend request from Choedak Gyato. I’m careful about whom I accept as a friend on Facebook, and a quick check of Choedak revealed no mutual friends and a hometown in India. I thought this request might be a scam. But then I saw that Choedak was a teacher, so I accepted his friend request.

A little while later, Choedak sent me an email. He had read one of my blog posts, and he wanted to let me know how much he enjoyed it. He told me that he was teaching political science at the Tibetan Childrens Village (TCV) in India, and that most of his students were Tibetan refugees or the sons and daughters of Tibetan refugees.

Choedak explained that TCV was established by the Dalai Lama’s mother and now provides free education and home care for thousands of Tibetan children. He told me that students come to his school for a better education, and, most importantly, for freedom. He explained that many of his students had emotional and sad stories, and many had been separated from their families in Tibet for several years.

I immediately suggested to Choedak that our students take part in an old-fashioned pen pal project. I thought my students could learn so much from his students, and I hoped that the project would bring a global perspective to my students, who – I was fairly certain – didn’t know much about what was going on in that part of the world. Despite the fact that my students come from diverse backgrounds, most speak two languages, and several are children of Cambodian, Colombian, Bengali, Salvadorean, and Mexican immigrants, I was pretty sure that they were not aware of what was happening in Tibet. In addition, Choedak’s students who were learning English would have an opportunity to practice their writing skills.

When I brought up the idea to my thirteen AP seniors, I think they thought I was a little crazy. Most of them had never written a pen and paper letter before. I encouraged them to write their pen pals about what they were studying in school, their hobbies, the books and music that they loved, their goals and aspirations. Some wrote long letters filled with detail. A couple rolled their eyes and wrote one or two paragraphs.

About two weeks later when the letters arrived in India, Choedak matched each one to his students, and they began writing to us in English. And their letters were so amazing. The Tibetan students’ experiences were very different from my students’ – many had been separated from their parents, without any hope of seeing them again. One Tibetan student told of his childhood in Tibet “spent looking after yak herds and being raised in a Nomadic family.” Another wrote of “almost 159 Tibetan, innocent people who self-immolated for the sake of our nation.”

(Above: Tibet students in India sitting for their exam)

In turn, the Tibetan students learned a great deal about American culture. Several had expected the American teens to be of the same background and religion. They were surprised to learn that the students in my class were Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian, and that they had come from many different ethnic backgrounds. Even so, both sets of students had shared interests in music, literature, and sports.

In reflecting on the experience, Immaculate stated “Interacting with Wangmo has been revolutionary! I came to the America in a flee-fashioned form as a result of the extreme tribalism in my country (Kenya) that essentially initiated a tribal battle that killed many people. This is something I feel is not very common amongst my group of friends, so I tend to keep to myself. But, meeting Wangmo and hearing her story was just amazing. She is this strong and resilient person who has been through so much, and yet she is still persevering and standing strong. Through Wangmo, I feel closure in the sense that I have someone that understands my experiences in life. Additionally, through her, I am reminded on the bright aspects of my native home. As it so coincidentally happens to be, our two cultures are very much the same. Wangmo is preparing to take the national board exam that’s so critical to her future – this is an exam that I was being trained to take several years ago. I love that I got to meet Wangmo.”

My student, Joseph’s family hails from Cambodia. He said “The Tibetan Pen Pal project was a great experience. and it was especially meaningful since my pen pal and I are both an age where we can question the things around us and understand similar problems around the world. My pen pal and I have a similar background, so it was easy to have a conversation about specific topics. Through our letters, we are both learning new things about each other and about the world. We taught each other about the places we live in and our culture. I hope to continue communications with my new Tibetan friend.”

Victoria said, “I’ve been waiting to hear back from my Tibetan pen-pal. I’ve gotten so much insight from this distinct culture. I have learned about the Tibetan New Year, about Tibetan history, and most importantly, I gained a new Tibetan friend with a unique life. I will take away from this wonderful experience one thing: there are people around the world who suffer a great deal of tragedy, like having to flee their homeland and leaving their loved ones behind, yet they still find the courage to prosper in life by continuing their studies and pursuing a higher level education. This experience has truly touched my heart, and I will value it forever.”

Jessny loved both the similarities she shared with her pen pal, as well as the differences. She said, “Working with the Tibetan pen pals has taught me a lot about the people outside of the United States. For one, these kids in India aren’t normal kids. They attend and live in a high school far away from their parents. Their whole lives are focused on taking a certain exam that determines whether or not they will become successful in life – in other words – whether or not they will get into college. These students are exposed to the English language, as well as our culture. My pen pal, Tenzin, enjoys Demi Lovato and books from the author, Nicholas Sparks. Writing my pen pal meant that I got the opportunity to get to know someone from a different country. Her culture and experiences are entirely different from mine; therefore, it was interesting to see things from a new perspective. She has taught me that the entire world isn’t perfect, and there are people struggling to get an education. Some people in the United States take education for granted. It’s not until you get exposed to the outside world that you realize how lucky we are.

Kayla stated, “I learned more about religion and being at peace with yourself. I got to learn about Buddhism, Nirvana, and so much about a religion that I knew little about. My pen pal, Sel, also taught me about what it’s like in Tibet, and the struggles that she had to push through to get where she is now. Reading about the ordeals she had to deal with caused me to appreciate what I have in my life, and not to stress about the little things.

As teachers, Choedak and I both appreciated this experience so much. Choedak said that the project gave his students some insight into the diversity in the United States. He also said it helped his students improve their English skills.

For me, the Tibetan Pen Pal Project was one of the best things to happen this school year. It gave my students and me a global perspective that we never had before. Many of my students have connected with their pen pals over Facebook and Twitter, and it is my strongest hope that they have created lifelong friends with whom they will continue to correspond.

Five Tips for Creating a Pen Pal Project in Your Classroom

1. Pen Pal projects can work in or out of the country. A few years ago, my sophomores wrote pen pal letters to students in a very wealthy community in Maryland. The experience was eye-opening for both sets of teens.

2. Send all the letters in one manila envelope. This makes it easier for mailing and distribution.

3. If possible, match students with their pen pals. When reading the letters, it’s sometimes helpful – but not necessary – to match students with those who share similar interests.

4. Make sure students are respectful of differences. In some cases, a student’s experience may differ greatly from his/her pen pal’s. I caution students to always be respectful of that diversity.

5. Use caution with social media. At first, I did not want my students to connect with their pen pals over social media. I wanted to keep the correspondence “professional.” But as the project continued, I realized that my seniors were mature enough to continue their friendships with their new pen pals once they graduated.