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Program for China-U.S. pen pals passes 9,000-match milestone

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–As educators John and Frances Carter conducted English workshops for Chinese teachers five years ago, they got an interesting request. Could you recruit American students to correspond with mine? The teacher — from the Anhui Province — believed it would be a lively way for Chinese students to hone English skills.
Carter, who heads the International Book Project of Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., agreed to give it a try.
The first year, almost 1,000 Chinese submitted their names and addresses. Since 1993, the program has burgeoned. More than 9,000 Americans — junior high, high school and college students on urban campuses and in rural communities around the country — have been matched with Chinese counterparts.
At Baylor University, Frank McAnear recruited 100 students to take up correspondence in 1996; that number doubled in 1997. “We have 2,000 students in freshman English,” said McAnear, who works with internationals on campus. “Visiting in those classes, this year I found 400 signups,” with the students to begin writing during the Christmas holidays.
This year, instead of merely submitting names and addresses, Chinese students wrote letters of introduction, which Carter has distributed around the country.
In Clinton, Tenn., for example, this December girls divided up a bundle of the letters from China mailed to their Acteens group. Elizabeth Diggs, the leader, is delighted that teenagers in her small town 10 miles northeast of Oak Ridge can develop relationships with teenagers on the other side of the world. Her own daughter, Celina, 17, sifted through the letters and chose one with nice penmanship from a teenager named Gantingting who wrote engagingly about her family and closed, “I want to be a pen friend with you.”
To American educators and leaders who sign on as a sponsor for a group of American pen pals, Carter sends guidelines. “We work within the framework of the Chinese government which is communist and we want our corresponders to be aware of that,” he said.
Carter also wants Americans to be aware that for the Chinese, correspondence is costly; replies are sometimes slow. He estimates that paper and postage for one letter equal the price of a student’s food for one day. The Chinese view it as an investment. “I doubt,” one Chinese teacher told him, “that American students have any concept of the excitement their letters generate among our students.”
Carter expanded the program this year to include students from Indonesia. “I am not surprised this has caught on,” he reflected. “This is one of the things in my life that I have felt the Lord leading in.”
For more information, call John Carter at (205) 822-4106 or write him at Samford University, P.O. Box 2305, Birmingham, AL 35229.

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  • Celeste Pennington