A Modern Take on the Pen-Pal Experience

Camila Kiger, a junior at Foxcroft School (VA), is making a big impact on girls 2,200 miles away through a digital, real-time version of the classic pen pal concept.

Kiger has created an international language and cultural exchange called LEAP (Learn English and Progress) that connects Advanced Placement Spanish students at her small, girls boarding and day school with girls in Medellín, Colombia. The goal is to help the Colombian girls learn English—and for both groups to improve cultural understanding.

In May, LEAP was featured on the TV news show Noticias Telemundo, which runs on the second largest Spanish-language network in the United States. Telemundo’s Lori Montenegro made several visits to Foxcroft to interview Kiger and other student participants, and to see a conversational session in action.

“I am so proud of how these young women are making a difference in the world while expanding their own skills. Kiger’s project is a model for service learning!” head of school Cathy McGehee tweeted after the two-minute television segment was broadcast live. The piece was also streamed nationally.

Kiger wrote about the origin of the LEAP program earlier this year: “In the past, a limited number of people from around the world could meet others, read stories, and become remote friends via snail mail and local school programs that were usually limited and difficult to manage,” she explained. “Today, with the development of technology, we can build such networks in real time.”

Kiger, a native of Colombia, conceived of the program several years ago when she and her family were living in Brazil. “I noticed the great difficulties, but also the huge opportunity, for lower-income girls to learn and practice English,” she says. “Our goal is not only to practice languages but also to provide both sides with a better understanding of each other’s lives, which will be culturally rich for all participants.”

Last summer, Kiger worked in Medellín and presented the plan to the mayor’s office and the city’s secretary of social affairs. Together, they found the right group of students, set up the digital platform, and started the program. Foxcroft’s World Languages Department chair, Esther Sanchez, worked with Kiger to identify volunteers among Foxcroft’s Spanish students and set things up on the U.S. side.

Kiger has big plans for LEAP. “My goal is to continue to expand this concept and make sure that we build a network that can help educate hundreds of girls from all around the world about different
cultures for years to come,” she says.