Simpson University students partner with Juniper School pen pals

For Immediate Release


REDDING, Calif. - In an era of text messages and social media, a group of Simpson University and Juniper School students spent the past few months getting to know each other via pen and paper.

The pen-pal partnership between 21 college students in professor Mardy Philippian’s English classes at Simpson and 21 third-graders in Karen Lawrence’s class is part of Juniper’s “No Excuses University” initiative, a national program that seeks to prepare students for college.

Each class at Juniper is “sponsored” by a university. Many of the teachers partner with their alma maters, including Lawrence, who earned her bachelor’s degree and teaching credential from Simpson University. Each Monday students wear T-shirts from their university, and teachers discuss various aspects of college life, Lawrence said.

This year she took the partnership a step further and asked Philippian, whose sons attend Juniper, if his students might be interested in exchanging letters.

They took the bait,” she said, “and they are loving it, and my kids are loving it.”

Philippian introduced the idea in his Survey of British Literature and Shakespeare classes, encouraging the idea of mentorship and university service to the community.

The students were randomly matched, and the pairs exchanged three sets of letters, with Philippian and his wife, Serena, acting as mail carriers. “My students asked about what college life is like and if they liked their dorms because we talk about dorms and classes,” Lawrence said.

Both sides shared personal information about families and pets. The letters often included drawings—Philippian, who co-directs the faculty-in-residence program at Simpson and lives with his family in a campus residence hall, said he saw Juniper student artwork posted in hallways and on his students’ doors.

On Dec. 9, Simpson students visited Lawrence’s classroom to meet their pen pals and enjoy some face time over hot chocolate and Christmas cookies.

“They came in spite of it being finals week, and many brought little gifts,” Lawrence said. “I overheard a few conversations; some students were up all night writing papers.”

Her students were thrilled with the visit, she said.

“The value for them is knowing that college is real,” she said, noting that many of her students come from economically disadvantaged homes and are not often exposed to the idea of college as anything more than an abstract concept for wealthier families. “They get to interact with real students and can say, wow, she’s a real person. If she can go to college, there’s a chance I can.”

On a practical level, the pen-pal partnership—which will continue in the spring semester—provides good writing and editing practice, as well as a balance to technology, Lawrence said.

“With texting and emailing and Skyping, the handwritten letter is kind of getting tossed to the curb,” she said. “We talk about text messaging and how it’s different when we write a letter. My hope is they’re able to put it all into perspective.”

Philippian addresses the same thing with his students.

“While the instantaneousness of digital communication is perhaps more immediately satisfying, we may have lost something valuable,” he notes in his project description. “We have lost the deeper familiarity with another human being that comes as a result of seeing his or her handwriting, or the very ‘character’ of a person.”

The partnership was also valuable for students pursuing careers as teachers, giving them a closer look at students’ lives, Philippian said. “They commented on how important relationship is as part of the learning process.”

Photos courtesy Karen Lawrence and Mardy Philippian. Group shot: Karen Lawrence's class at Juniper School holds up letters received from Simpson University pen pals. / Juniper teacher Karen Lawrence and Simpson University English professor Mardy Philippian. / Juniper student Ashlyn Michaels, left, enjoys time with her Simpson University pen pal, Clara Law.


Simpson University is a Christian university offering undergraduate, graduate, and teaching credential programs. Academic programs include ASPIRE, a degree-completion program geared toward working adults in the north state. Simpson’s newest programs include degrees in nursing, biology, outdoor leadership, and master’s degrees in counseling psychology and organizational leadership. For more information, or to arrange a campus visit, call 1-888-9-SIMPSON or visit


Contact: SU Public Relations