Cross-cultural letter writing scheme is helping to tackle loneliness

Founder of the Writing Back  project Dr Georgina Binnie, right, with foreign students Melissa Morgan, Ankita Sharma, and Yi-Ping Hu. Picture Tony Johnson.
Founder of the Writing Back project Dr Georgina Binnie, right, with foreign students Melissa Morgan, Ankita Sharma, and Yi-Ping Hu. Picture Tony Johnson.
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An inter-generational pen pal project is helping international students to combat loneliness among older people across the region - while also making them feel at home in their new country.

The Writing Back project has helped connect hundreds of English students at the University of Leeds with older people in Yorkshire for the last four years, but now, for the first time, it has been given funding to expand to include international students.

An inter generational pen pal project at the University of Leeds which helps combat loneliness in older people and in students settling in a new city has expanded to include international students from China for the first time.  Picture Tony Johnson.

An inter generational pen pal project at the University of Leeds which helps combat loneliness in older people and in students settling in a new city has expanded to include international students from China for the first time. Picture Tony Johnson.

It is hoped that by including students from a variety of countries, speaking a number of different languages, the project will appeal to even more older people who may be lonely or socially isolated, especially those from the Chinese community. There are 34 students already signed up to take part, and the project is now looking for people who are keen to write to a student.

Writing Back founder Dr Georgina Binnie said: “Part of the reason we’re starting the new project is to diversify Writing Back, but it is also to appeal to older people in Yorkshire who may not have English as their first language and are looking to engage with students, but may have been put off by the language barrier.

“The focus of Writing Back has always been on preventing loneliness, and for our international students, who may be away from home for the first time in an unfamiliar country, it’s something they want to do for themselves. It’s also a chance to learn more about the Yorkshire heritage and culture.”

So far, students from China, India and America have got involved, including Yi-Ping Hu, from Taiwan.

An inter generational pen pal project at the University of Leeds which helps combat loneliness in older people and in students settling in a new city has expanded to include international students from China for the first time.  Picture Tony Johnson.

An inter generational pen pal project at the University of Leeds which helps combat loneliness in older people and in students settling in a new city has expanded to include international students from China for the first time. Picture Tony Johnson.

The 23-year-old, who is studying for an MA in Linguistics and English Language Teaching, said the chance to have a British pen pal from the older generation was “particularly special” to her.

“In Asia, older people stay with their families and help raise their grandchildren, and I miss my grandparents very much,” she said. “I don’t get the chance to meet with many older people, so to write to someone is very special for me.”

It is also a chance for her to bust the “suit and pearls” stereotypes of older people in Britain, she said, and pick up some tips.

“I love cooking, so I will be asking how to make the perfect Yorkshire puddings,” she added.

Melissa Morgan, 24, from California in the United States, found out about the project before she was accepted to study her MA in American Literature and Culture.

After losing both her paternal grandparents earlier this year, it really appealed to her.

“Interaction with older people is something that has very much been on my mind over the last 18 months as my family were caring for my grandparents towards the end of their lives,” she said. “I very much believe in the importance of service and giving back, and it’s something I try to embody and act on as much as I can.

“But there are a lot of things that can be gained from building connections with people, and there’s so much to learn from it.”

Miss Binnie said the venture would also examine the significance of cultural exchanges in helping to aid and abet loneliness.

If you, or someone you know, would like to write to one of the students, contact Miss Binnie at the School of English, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT, email G.E.Binnie@leeds.ac.uk or call 0113 343 6189.

The Yorkshire Post has been campaigning to highlight the devastating health effects of loneliness, which affects more than 90,000 older people in the region, since February 2014.

We are backing the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission’s bid to get people to take responsibility for those in our lives who may be feeling lonely by simply starting a conversation. Whether it’s re-connecting with an old friend, chatting to a neighbour, or offering some of your free time to volunteer as a befriender - you can help tackle loneliness. Visit The Yorkshire Post website or search #happytochat for more information.

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Volunteer Derek Sykes teaches Gillian Cooper at the art and conversation class. 
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A welcome way to help put an end to loneliness