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University of Iowa News Release


Jan. 9, 2008

Pen pal project brings UI to suburban Chicago schools

A group of University of Iowa students is bringing a little bit of Iowa City to the Chicago area this winter.

Members of Students to Assist Recruitment (STAR), a volunteer student organization sponsored by the UI Office of Admissions, will travel to Chicago's northwest suburbs Friday, Jan. 11 to visit students in first, fourth and fifth grades. A pen pal project inspired STAR members junior Kevin Farrell and senior Rachel Leffring to organize the trip.

"It started when we received our first letter from an elementary school in Hoffman Estates, Ill.," Farrell said. "The teacher was interested in starting a pen-pal letter exchange between students at Iowa and her fifth-grade class. We had a good response from the members at our meeting, so we decided to do it."

The teacher, Whiteley Elementary School teacher Cindy Zeivel, wanted to connect UI students with her 22 fifth-grade students to support a program called "No Excuses University." The program -- started by a national organization, Turn-Around Schools -- began in District 15 this school year and focuses on encouraging all students to attend college. The goal is to give students information, access and opportunities to higher education at an early age.

Zeivel, whose daughter attends the UI, said No Excuses University has benefited her students, who have developed a greater awareness about preparing for college.

"For the first time ever I hear students say, 'When I go to college...,'" Zeivel said. "We set a benchmark for tests that we take, and over our results we put the title 'College Bound.' The students are fully aware that the study skills and good habits that they are developing now will be the same ones that they will take to college with them. One of the kids said that school is more interesting now and they know why it is important to do well. They now know that you can have a major in biomedical engineering or cinema and that you can earn a scholarship with your brains and your skills."

Zeivel was not the only teacher to request students from the UI. UI alumna Meghan Walker, a fourth-grade teacher at Virginia Lake Elementary in Palatine, Ill. also wrote to ask that her 23 students be "adopted" by STAR as pen pals.

"My students are able to get a better understanding of what college life is like through the pen pal letters," Walker said. "This program has helped my students learn the importance of setting and achieving goals, which will allow them to reach their full potential and in the end I hope they will learn that there are 'No Excuses' not to further their education."

Leffring also received an email from a first-grade teacher in Palatine. Donna Zimmerman did not request pen pals for her class but did ask for information and materials to help persuade her students that college is a realistic option for them.

Currently, STAR members write two letters per month to the fourth and fifth-graders. In return, the elementary school students write about their families, pets, favorite movies and classroom activities.

For fifth-grader Woo Young Kim, a recent Korean immigrant and English as a Second Language student, the No Excuses project was a chance to write in English. In his letter, Woo Young said he likes to draw and play the saxophone; he also reads mystery and fantasy books. "In Korea, I was class president two times!" he wrote.

The UI students answer questions and offer encouragement to the fourth- and fifth-graders in their letters. In support of the No Excuses program, they all try to send a positive message about school and the need for hard work.

"We tell the kids to keep up the good work in school and continue reading and studying," Leffring said. "We want them to understand they have to do these things in college, so they need to start good habits now."

At first the Iowa students planned only to exchange letters with the fourth- and fifth-graders. But after a while it struck Leffring and Farrell (both Illinois residents) to meet their young pen pals face-to-face during the holiday break. With some help from the UI's Admissions staff, Alumni Association, Sports Marketing Office and Office of Student Life, Farrell was able to collect Hawkeye gifts to take to all 75 students.

On Friday, each child will get an Iowa Hawk Shop bag with a water bottle, basketball trading cards, postcards, key chain, pen. Football and basketball posters, along with T-shirts will also be given to the students. While in the classroom, UI students will hand out Iowa pennants and temporary Tiger Hawk tattoos and play Iowa bingo with the fifth-grade class. Also, all students will see this year's new UI admissions video.

Leffring and Farrell have already received positive feedback from all the teachers about coming to the classrooms.

"STAR has received pictures of the classrooms decorated in a Hawkeye theme, awaiting our visit," Farrell said. "The first-grade class has a bulletin board full of pictures and information about the university. In the fifth-grade class, every Friday is spirit day and all the kids wear black and gold. Every morning they look at the online Pentacrest camera and say, 'Good morning Hawkeyes!' Also, this fall they would spell out 'I-O-W-A' after every football victory. They are excited to have us, to say the least.

"The fifth-graders were betting other classes with pen pals from other Big Ten universities during football season," Farrell added. "Whoever lost the bets had to wash lunch tables or the desks in the classrooms. The kids were also learning the Iowa Fight Song so they could sing it every time Iowa won a game."

The teachers also get involved in the friendly wagers. When Iowa beat Illinois in football, the sixth-grade teacher at Whitely wore Iowa gear all day, but Zeivel had to wear Wisconsin gear after Iowa's loss to the Badgers.

Leffring, who is also an intern at the UI's Chicago Center, was amazed how quickly the young students made a connection with the STAR students.    

"They pick up on everything you write about," Leffring said. "All of the kids have been very open and honest with us. They will tell us anything about them; it's cute."

Kathy Bassett, senior associate director of admissions at the UI, said the relationships the UI students are building with these children is about providing opportunities rather than recruiting.

"This is a great project for our students as well as the kids," Bassett said. "Iowa students are encouraging young students to keep up with their academics. The relationships the students have built are important and could help these children further their education."

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACTS: Rachel Leffring, STAR,; Kevin Farrell, STAR,; John Laverty, UI Admissions, 319-335-0097,; George McCrory, University News Services, 319-384-0012,; Writers: Leslie Bingham and George McCrory

OTHER INFORMATION: No Excuses University Network: