New organization Pen Pal Swap targets college readiness in low income students

Megan Menchaca

Two UT students have started a pen pal program to help economically disadvantaged public school students, which, according to the Texas Education Agency, makes up more than half of all public school students in the state.

Bilingual education junior Ana Arreaga and psychology sophomore Christina Ciaburri founded Pen Pal Swap to provide guidance to lower-income kids about college and to improve their test scores on the STAAR writing exam, Texas’ standardized state-mandated test.

“We want the students in these low-income areas to have role models,” Arreaga said. “The idea of this program is to help these kids in lower-income schools and to be resources for any questions they have about college.”

Through the program, UT students will send a letter to an elementary or middle school student and initiate a correspondence.

“With this program, we want UT students getting a mentorship role where they can help students at the elementary schools get ready for college,” Arreaga said.

After releasing their first interest form last Sunday on Twitter, more than 70 students signed up to send letters to students at Hodges Elementary and A.C New Middle School in Balch Springs, Texas, and Raye-Allen Elementary in Temple, Texas.

“If you put the thought of college in their (elementary and middle school students) minds early, then they’ll believe for the rest of high school that it’s a possibility,” Ciaburri said. “It’s important to get that excitement for reading and writing early, because it’s key to how they will do for the rest of their school life.”

Ciaburri and Arreaga said they began the program because they are both from lower-income schools and understand the difficulties these students will eventually face at college.

“For many families, Generation Y is the first one going to college, and there’s no blueprint for them,” Ciaburri said. “There’s a lot of kids out there that need this support because they won’t get it otherwise.”

Sociology freshman Juan Caballero said he signed up for the program because he wants to provide a perspective on the college experience and become a mentor for other minority students.

“As a student at UT, I have this privilege of having an experience at a university and I feel like I have to use that privilege to inspire younger kids and to let them know about my experiences,” Caballero said.