“When I’m in college I want to be just like you!”
Hillsdale College students often open the journals they share with local elementary students to affectionate entries like this one. Passing the journal back and forth helps the young students form a mentorship with the college-aged volunteers.
Journal Buddies is a pen pal system between Hillsdale students and third and fourth graders at Geir Elementary School, offered through Hillsdale College’s GOAL program. The students write to each other once a week in journals that Paula Skwarek, the program’s leader, drives back and forth between the college and the elementary school. The correspondences are sometimes funny, sometimes precocious, and always adorable.
“At the beginning of the year I had all of the journals dropped off so the kids could choose whatever color journal they wanted and decorate it however they wanted,” Skwarek said.” They get to write the first entry with a simple introduction. After that, it gets pretty unpredictable.”
Some of the third and fourth graders take a philosophical approach to journaling, asking their buddies about their greatest fears and frustrations, while others like to compare astrological signs. Most like to share drawings of their Halloween costumes, and still others like to provide practical advice like warnings against dying your hair.
Junior Emily Brausch, who has been involved with the program for two years, said that her buddy Gentry likes to write about his dad’s farm and his soccer team.
“It’s fun to see how random his thoughts are,” Brausch said. “What he writes makes so much sense to a child, but everything just seems so random to me.”
Skwarek said that one of her favorite journal entries this year was from a fourth grader moving houses.
“She ranked every house that she visited and was super intense about it. The most important thing to her was a backyard for her dogs to run around in.”
The journal entry reads like a no-holds-barred episode of House Hunters: “The first one was REALLY broken,” she wrote. “Very small and belonged to a smoker so it smelled bad.” In the end, her dream house was the one with a new washer and dryer.
Junior Patrick Rhode said that writing to his buddy Devinn has become one of the highlights of his week.
“We only write once a week for a half hour, so it’s not a huge time commitment, but it’s a lot of fun to read the journal and have a little laugh,” Rhode said. “When we’re doing our normal college work, having a little laugh once a week is a really nice thing to look forward to.”
The students also draw pictures for one another and attach photos of friends, family, and pets.
“I promised my buddy a picture of me and my friends, but for a while I was unable to print it out,” Rhodes said. “I finally gave her one and she was so excited to finally see who she was talking to. The writing was bigger than normal and there were a lot more exclamation points.”
While the program is fun for college students and third and fourth graders alike, it also has an impact on the community.
“It’s really a kind of mentorship program where you’re a big buddy to someone who really looks up to you,” Brausch said. “It’s important to see what he likes and what I can talk with him about so I can be a mentor to him.”
Additionally, the program is designed to promote literacy.
“Writing in their journals offers elementary school students a way to practice literacy in a fun way,” Skwarek said. “It’s not in a strict setting and it’s not graded. They’re just having a conversation with someone while practicing writing and penmanship.”
Swarek says she hopes to host a “meet your buddy” pizza party at the end of the year.
“In her last journal entry, my buddy actually said that she wanted to meet me,” Rhode said. “It’s funny how that little bit of interaction sparks so much intrigue in their minds. Getting to meet our buddies would be a fantastic way to end the year.”