PenPal Schools Offer Students Online ‘Study Abroad’

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PenPal Schools participants in Argentina. Courtesy photo

PenPal Schools participants in Argentina. Courtesy photo

Travel might be the defining experience of the Millennial generation. The enlightening influence of time spent in another country has shaped their global sensibility, as well as the increased insistence on jobs and products that “give back.”

While the travel industry scrambles to keep up with booking trends of deal-seeking young professionals, and study abroad programs grow in non-European countries, travel has not completely lost its status as a pastime of the privileged.

PenPal Schools wants to change that. They want to bring the edification of global perspectives to learners around the world, regardless of income, opportunity, or access.

“It’s like study abroad for people who never had that opportunity,” said Joe Troyen, founder of PenPal schools.

Joe Troyen, founder of PenPal Schools. courtesy photo

Joe Troyen, founder of PenPal Schools. Courtesy photo

The web-based learning program and cultural exchange connects users to “pen pals” across the world enrolled in the same online course. Topics include global issues like civil rights, politics, and current events, giving users the opportunity to see issues through the eyes of someone with a truly different perspective. Pen pals often come from drastically different cultural, political and social spheres of influence. 

PenPal Schools recently relocated from New York City to Austin, where the tech culture is conducive to their mission. From there, they’ve set their sights on San Antonio as a hub for outreach and programming. David Robinson, Jr., PenPal School’s community relations manager, hopes to build on innovative literacy and learning initiatives through connections with like-minded community programs like BiblioTech and others as well as major investors like the Holt family.

San Antonio also has particular cultural appeal for the program. Growing Latino populations have finally grabbed the sustained attention of politicians and businesses. PenPal Schools want to drive the conversation deeper by connecting individuals, classrooms, and families whose life experience gives flesh to the headlines.

Dialogue-driven learning offers the opportunity for the kind of diversity still missing from the national discourse especially on hot-button social topics. Person-to-person conversations will add texture and complexity that national media and political campaigns cannot. With wide participation in a majority Hispanic city, Americans in predominantly white communities across the country could end up connected to Hispanic pen pals who will offer insight into a political talking point dominated by partisan platforms.

Currently PenPal Schools serves 70,000 users in 85 countries. With the launch of an app for Android and iPhone and the imminent arrival of an improved web app, PenPal Schools plans to expand its reach even further, hoping to hit 1 million users in the next 12 months. In places where a home computer is an inaccessible luxury, smart phones are often the primary means of internet connectivity.

Troyen started PenPal Schools in 2012 to cover the presidential election for students in New York. Hearing perspectives from across the state gave participants a broader perspective on the issues. In 2013, with fewer than 1,000 students enrolled in courses discussing current events, Troyen quit his job and traveled across Asia to explore the possibility of international operations. He found students throughout Asia eager to practice English, jumping at the chance to participate in dialogue with a native speaker.

The program’s explosive growth is testament to a global desire for perspective. As the internet and media exports generate plenty of snapshots from across the world, people realize that these images are not equally representational (you don’t see nuanced coverage of varying viewpoints), nor do they necessarily deepen our understanding of those who share our world.

“It’s a fallacy when people say we’re interconnected across cultures, because we’re really not,” Troyen said.

By matching people with common interests but different viewpoints, PenPal Schools gives participants access to unique insight that might look incredibly different from the bird’s eye view or summaries they see in the news. One program, Walking to Freedom, brings people from around the world together to discuss discrimination, diversity, and crusaders for civil rights. To hone the course’s international perspective, PenPal Schools developed the program with Via Afrika, an educational publisher in South Africa.

PenPal Schools is also a valuable resource for those studying a specific language or destination. The World Explorer and Language Exchange courses allow participants to teach each other.

In addition to traditional students, Troyen has seen executives use the program to prepare for international partnerships. Knowing some customs and etiquette of another country, particularly in Asia, is a huge asset when trying to close a deal.

In those cases, the ability to choose the nationality of your pen pal is essential. According to Crystal Germond, head of marketing for PenPal Schools, this is the program’s most requested feature, and they are working toward a solution.

For Hispanic Americans, the ability to choose the pen pal’s nationality will offer families the chance to explore their heritage. Second and third generation Americans can converse with people their own age, giving immediacy and relevance to the histories and values of their family. Students in the Latin American countries can see how American families keep their culture alive in the United States.

“We’ve designed these courses with these experiences in mind,” Germond said.

As demand increases among those who will use the program as a business tool, PenPal Schools will be able to add paid “premium” courses to their current content. Their core courses, World Explorer, World News, Decision 2016, and Walking to Freedom, are currently offered free of charge. Troyen is committed to keeping them so, even with excellent course leaders and rich content. They also plan to grow their free courses. Publishers signed on for business or research oriented publishing, courses that will likely have a fee attached, have also agreed to a “buy one/give one” providing free content as well as paid.

The free programs drive the mission of PenPal Schools, extending its reach as far as any technology can carry it.

Children wait in line to use the internet to participate in a course through PenPal Schools. Courtesy photo.

Children in Ghana wait in line to use the internet to participate in a course through PenPal Schools. Courtesy photo.

Girls living in poverty around the world often exist in the margins of their own society, with almost no sense of belonging or connection with the world beyond their villages or neighborhoods. Meaningful exchanges with their pen pals validate and honor their perspective and their relevance in a world where they are often invisible.

A letter from the head of the Mfangano Girls Empowerment Academy in Kenya, demonstrates that what begins as an educational exercise often ends in emotional enrichment.

“Penpal Schools is counted on as a big blessing, in that our orphaned students will have a chance to chat and share different ideas with friends from different parts of the world, something I believe will have a heart-felt impact and boost to our efforts of training them to embrace the sense of belonging and acceptance,” Sungu Samnirwa stated.

Low barriers to participation also increase the authenticity of a global exchange. The ability to pay, even what might be considered nominal participation fees, automatically informs the perspectives represented. Troyen is not concerned that the lack of fee will attract “non-serious” students or decrease incentive to participate. School kids in Ghana are waiting in line to use the one internet connected laptop in the area. He has no doubts about their commitment. In this way PenPal Schools might have an advantage on certain study abroad experiences, at least in this author’s opinion.

Troyen still believes that travel is the most effective and thorough means to global perspective. He doesn’t aim to replace study abroad, gap-years, or in any way decrease the population’s motivation to get out and see the world. On the contrary, PenPal Schools wants to start conversations between learners. Their hope is that those conversations will lead to more compassion, diverse perspectives, and a hunger to learn beyond what we think we know about the world. 

*Top image: PenPal Schools participants in Argentina. Courtesy photo.

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