Stories from intrepid reporters attending the Illinois Press Foundation Journalism Workshop at Eastern Illinois University
By Robert He
Erika Meza, Blue Island, has made friendships on a global scale.
Meza is a senior at Eisenhower High School and has connected with and keeps in touch with pen pals from around the world.
“I heard my friend had a pen pal from England and I wanted to meet someone that I could talk about their culture,” she said. Two years ago, Meza asked her Spanish teacher and mentor, Ms. Michelle Alfano, about connecting with a pen pal. Her teacher connected Meza with her own pen pal’s family. Alfano had traveled around the world and made many connections with people from different countries.
Meza’s first pen pal was a girl named Sophia from Greece. “It didn’t really work out because there was a language barrier,” she said. “She only spoke a little bit of English.”
Alfano continued connecting Meza with her other pen pals’ children, with whom language was less of a problem. Since her first pen pal, Meza has gotten into contact with people from various countries.
“I have eight pen pals that I met through my Spanish teacher. I have one from Ireland, a girl from India, two from Russia, one from Jamaica, France, California and Argentina,” she explained.
She keeps in contact with them daily through email and Skype, an online chatting service. “We talk about the differences in the customs in our countries,” she said. “For example, we talk about the differences in use of words, food, traditions, family life and so on.”
Meza has also made pen pals without the help of her teacher. When she was in Chicago, she met a boy who was touring downtown Chicago.
“I noticed that he seemed unfamiliar with the area and I went up to him and I asked if he needed help. It was pretty interesting because he didn’t speak English; he just spoke French and Spanish. So being bilingual, speaking English and Spanish, helped.” she said.
After that, they exchanged contact information and still stay in contact to this day. This boy is also the only pen pal Meza has met in person.
All of Meza’s pen pals are older than she is, and she has recently started discussing the college admissions process with them. But the pen pals also occasionally have some tips for Meza.
“I’m going to be graduating in one year and they give me valuable advice,” she said. “Basically they tell me to be open to anything because you never know what you’re going to learn from new experiences.”
Meza hopes to maintain her connections with her pen pals and to meet more in the future.
“It’s always good to know that there are other things going on in the world – they offer a fresh perspective,” she said.