The project took on a life of its own. Gould has been flooded with hundreds of letters from as far away as Hawaii and Venezuela. Senior citizens were so eager to share their wisdom that they stuffed letters under his office door when he wasn't in. After he handed a legacy letter to each of his 250 students on the last day of class, several students were so moved by the advice that they asked permission to contact the authors.
The Legacy Letter Project's success in connecting senior citizens and college students inspired Gould to continue the project, expanding it to an audience beyond the UI and Iowa City community. Now he is inviting any senior citizen willing to share life lessons to submit a letter. Excerpts from many letters, along with photos of the authors in their 20s, will be posted on a new Web site, http://www.legacyletterproject.com, so anyone in the world can learn from them.
"From the students' perspective, there's an unsaid need to want to know what's down the road," said Gould, a lecturer in leisure studies, an interdisciplinary program in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "And the authors are just thrilled to be asked. You live 70, 80 years and endure a host of high points and low points to arrive where you are. There's a sense that it was all worth it when you can share that with someone who's just starting his or her journey. You can point out the things in life you don't want to miss and the potholes you want to step around."
Letters can be submitted by e-mail to email@example.com or mailed to Gould at 219 Macbride Hall, Iowa City, Iowa, 52242. Writers are asked to include one or more photos of themselves in their 20s. Photos will be returned if a return address is provided. Letter writers are also asked to include contact information and indicate permission to reprint the letter.
Already, letters have arrived in all shapes and sizes: eulogies, poems, short stories, both serious and humorous in tone. With each letter, Gould searches for a phrase that captures its essence. These quotations and the authors' photos are displayed on the project's Web site, designed by Mark Fullenkamp, Web specialist for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Gould recognized a need for the Legacy Letter Project after discovering how few of his students had interactions or relationships with senior citizens.
"I assigned one of my classes to interview someone over age 65 about what they had learned in life, and to many of the students it was an unbelievable request," Gould said. "They could find resources for all of the other projects throughout the semester, but this was a big challenge. I realized that many of my students had little to no contact with senior citizens, and some didn't even feel comfortable calling their grandparents."
The Legacy Letter Project was never meant to bridge the generational gap, Gould told his students, but it was an effort to get the conversation going.
In a note accompanying the letters his students received on the last day of class, Gould wrote, "Enclosed you will find one of the many letters written to you and your classmates by someone over 50 years old. In a perfect scenario I would have hand-picked just the right one. But of course that would be impossible. Instead I did the next best thing and simply left it to chance. While I hope you enjoy the letter you receive, the larger lesson is that someone cared enough to write it. Someone possibly 60 years your elder wanted to tell you a little bit about their life, and what they've learned. It feels like a good start."
Many of the photos and letters were exhibited as artwork at the Iowa City/Johnson County Senior Center during the Gallery Walk over the summer. Gould initially planned to include recent photos of the authors, but discovered that images of the authors in their college years helped students relate.
"Some authors were housewives, some were milkmen, some were university presidents, but they all have something valuable to contribute," he said. "I haven't found a letter yet that I haven't been able to pull something amazing out of."
STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.
MEDIA CONTACT: Nicole Riehl, University News Services, 319-384-0070, firstname.lastname@example.org