In My Experience: Penpal Edition!

In this edition of In My Experience, we’ll be hearing from Rachel Justus, a lifelong penpal writer, who will share her experiences of having long term penpals and how this experience has changed her life in a myriad of positive ways. Especially in times of great challenge the bonds created through these international exchanges are critical.

Gifts from Rachel’s penpals around the world!

My first pen pal came from the Parker Pen Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1965. I was 10 years old, and excited to see who the computer would match up with my interests. I was given the name and address of Denise, a girl of about my age who lived in Dunster, Somerset, England. At first it seemed the computer had made a mistake – she was a country girl with 3 younger brothers. I was a city girl from Elizabeth, NJ, with 2 older sisters who had both left for college by the time I was 10. 

But despite our differences, we were both young girls and had a lot in common; and by the time we had exchanged a few letters, we were friends. This was long before the Internet, or Facebook, or Instagram, or even email. So we sent letters and photos and calendars and gifts via “snail mail,” and waited eagerly for the response to arrive in our mailbox. 

Rachel, her parents and Jenny on her first trip to England in 1973!

Having a friend across the ocean turned out to be so much fun that over the next few years I looked for other opportunities to find new pen pals. I found Jenny, who was from Upton-Upon-Severn in Worcester, England, through a program that posted young people’s addresses on the back of comic books – yes, really!! I wrote to Mireille in France, who was my sister’s pen pal’s sister. And there was Peter in England and Barbara in New Zealand and Vira in Thailand. Barbara sent me a book of photos of New Zealand, which made me want to visit – and in 2019, I traveled to New Zealand and saw many of the places in the photos. I’ve been to France several times, and Thailand is still on the list.

Rachel with Jenny in England, 2004

I was never interested in geography or history, except when it came to my pen pals – and their letters were so interesting that I didn’t even realize I was learning from them! 

When I was 18 and had the opportunity to live in England for 3 months, I met Peter, Denise, and Jenny in person. I spent several days with Peter’s family in Hampshire; my parents and I drove to Somerset to meet Denise and her family; and Jenny and her new husband, Keith, came to visit us in our town near London. 

Rachel with Denise and her daughter
in England, 2004

When I returned to England in 2004, I had lost touch with Peter but managed to meet up with Denise and with Jenny. It was so much fun to see them again in person! Denise’s husband, who was from Ireland, gave me his personal shillelagh – which still hangs proudly above my door. And although my plans to visit in 2020 have been postponed, when I go back to England next year, I’m going to Jenny’s town so she can show me where she lived when we first “met.” 

Many of the letters Rachel received from her penpals over the years

Making international friends through writing letters has shaped my life. It’s made me an international traveler, and made me interested in getting to know people from other countries and other cultures. And although I’ve lost touch with most of my international friends, and Jenny and I now keep in touch via Facebook and email, there’s nothing as special as the boxes of “snail mail” letters I still treasure. 

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