Sixteen children ran from office door to office door on an intercontinental scavenger hunt in Combs Hall. They carried a crayon in one hand, a homemade passport in the other, searching for UMW professors who, like them, had come from all over the globe.
On the doors hung signs with flags from the professors’ native countries – China and Chile, Mexico and Jordan, Cuba and Spain – and the languages they spoke – English, Arabic, French, Italian, Spanish.
A pen pal program between UMW Mortar Board members and English language learners at Lafayette Upper Elementary School in Fredericksburg began as just that. But a monthly exchange of letters created unexpected bonds. It culminated this week at UMW, where the ultimate scavenger hunt prize was the chance to see just how far their language skills might take them.
Even if they didn’t know it yet.
The project started in September, when UMW Mortar Board president Madalyn Rymer ’18 wanted a unique way to promote literacy as part of the national honor society’s Reading is Leading initiative.
Rymer sent an email to Lafayette’s principal, asking if its members could start a pen pal program with students who were learning to speak English. The request landed with an ESL teacher who had a surprising connection to UMW.
Ana Johnson was a 2016 graduate. She’d arrived in the U.S. in 2011 from Colombia, where she was studying to become an ESL teacher in her native country.
“I came here to improve my English. Then I stayed. I didn’t want to go back,” Johnson said.
She loved the idea of a pen pal program between her students and her alma mater. Once a month, Rymer showed up at Lafayette with a bundle of letters for Johnson’s students, who couldn’t believe that someone was writing to them.
The ESL students wrote back. In the distinctive scrawl of a child, they thanked Rymer and the others for their letters. They wrote about their favorite food, their favorite color, their favorite TV show and video game. They wrote about what they wanted to be when they grew up. They folded their letters in homemade envelopes they decorated with flowers and trees, polka dots and tiny hearts.
It turned out the UMW students looked forward to the letters almost as much as the grade schoolers. Inspired by the artwork, Rymer said, Mortar Board members started decorating their envelopes, too.
By March, both groups were counting down the days to the Mary Washington field trip, where the pen pals would meet face-to-face for the first time. It was Johnson’s idea to bring them here, where she’d been a student just two years earlier.
Johnson reached out to her former professors in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. They were eager to help arrange the visit.
“ESL is one of the biggest contributions we have in education,” said Spanish Professor María Laura Bocaz. “If we had more people like Ana, the world would be better.”
She remembered her former student well. “She was brilliant. She was very generous. When students asked her for help, she was always there. She’s genuinely interested in learning. She didn’t study for the ‘A.’ She studied to learn, to get stronger.”
Johnson hadn’t forgotten her professors, either. “I didn’t believe a lot in myself. These teachers told me, ‘You can do it. Keep going.’”
This week, Johnson was back, now a teacher herself, hoping to impart to her own students all that she’d been given.
Rymer hoped the trip opened their eyes to all the opportunities before them. All that they might become.
“Mary Washington has different ways of getting involved with the Fredericksburg community and the world,” Bocaz said. “When we see a former student like Ana having a huge impact, it makes me feel that what we do is important.”
The third-, fourth- and fifth-graders arrived on a school bus just before 9 a.m. They got a mini tour of campus and checked out a dorm room. Then they headed to Combs to meet Bocaz, who handed out the passports made by Modern Languages office manager Jennifer Buist.
The search took them to three suites of faculty offices on three floors. It took them to the classroom of Gonzalo Campos, an assistant professor of modern languages and literature.
“They are learning Spanish. You are learning English,” Bocaz told them. “We are in the same boat.”
Before they headed to the UC for burgers and pizza and gelato, Bocaz had a reminder for them.
“Remember you have the power of being bilingual,” the professor said. “It’s a wonderful gift. Be proud of it.”