We spoke to Georgina Binnie, Impact and Research Fellow at the University of Leeds. Since 2014 she has led Writing Back, a campaign connecting local students to older residents in Yorkshire.
After volunteering in a care home and teaching English seminars to students, Georgina was struck by some similarities; both groups were experiencing levels of loneliness. Having written to her grandma while she was a student, she was aware of positive benefits she’d felt from letter writing and thought it could be a way to counter loneliness, homesickness, form friendships and improve wellbeing in the community.
Since the project began, more than 200 people have benefitted from writing and receiving letters and forming intergenerational friendships. In 2017 the University of Leeds International Office became involved with the scheme to help improve the experience of studying in the UK for international students.
“The loneliness and homesickness that some students feel when they’re away from home can be enhanced by distance for international students. Forming friendships with residents not only helps to counter this for international students but can greatly support older residents in the community. Writing Back is creating intergenerational friendships and reducing loneliness. We think this is changing lives for good in Yorkshire and beyond,” Georgina told us.
Margaret Thompson, a resident in Yorkshire and one of the older pen pals says:
“I have enjoyed writing to and receiving letters from my international penfriend. Her view of the world is so much broader than mine and her command of English and neatness of handwriting put me to shame! Despite her extensive travels I detect that she may miss home and family and I try to provide a warm "surrogate granny" experience for her. The impact on my life is that once again I am in touch with young people and I love to feel part of the modern world”.
International student Yinyin Peng from China has been involved with Writing Back since October 2017. Yinyin says it has had a positive impact on her life in the UK.
“I learned a lot from my pen pal, such as the number of beautiful parks in Leeds, other cultural matters, etc. Without this project, I would never have an opportunity to make pen pals with a senior citizen in UK, which is a unique and special experience in my life.
“I do enjoy the time when I read my elderly friend's letter, which shows my pen pal's passion and love for life and letters. These letters become a window for me to explore more about Leeds, Britain and even the world, because my pen pal has shared her traveling experiences and other meaningful stories with me. I feel that I have one more link with Leeds now.
“As my pen pal has no children, I do hope that my letters to her could offer her some pleasure or consolation. Also, I got warmth and consolation from her letters as well. I do hope that we can keep contact all the time”.
The project continues to develop and it has recently created a partnership with Southwest Jiaotong University-Leeds Joint School in China, to connect Chinese students to both older pen pals and students in the UK.
If you’re interested in the programme and would like to run a similar initiative in your university, school or college and would like to find out more, please contact Georgina Binnie by emailing G.E.Binnie@leeds.ac.uk.