ORLANDO, Fla., April 9 (UPI) -- A pen pal program launched at a Florida university for students who are isolated at home due to the coronavirus pandemic has grown to more than 1,300 students at a dozen colleges in the United States and overseas.
"College students, in particular, are used to being around others constantly. So we were trying to make sure they didn't feel too alone," said Meredith Mechanik, program coordinator with the University of South Florida's Compass Student Experience program for incoming freshmen.
The pen pal idea, which began at the university's St. Petersburg campus, is an effort to help students deal with isolation as social distancing becomes the primary weapon against the spread of the pandemic.
Mechanik and others said connecting with people is a way to support mental health, and it also helps efforts to reduce the infection rate.
Sharing your experience during a crisis is a key coping mechanism, said Heidi Radunovich, a licensed psychologist with the University of Florida, who is not associated with the pen pal program.
"I think that anything we can do to increase people's interactions and support in this stressful time is great," Radunovich said.
"If we weren't in a pandemic, there would be a lot of days where people could come out and gather, which is especially important for freshmen at a strange new school. But people are having to get creative now," she said.
Radunovich said the random matching of the pen pal program can help some students feel connected and could lead to some matches of two students the don't identify with each other.
"Even that can lead to a greater understanding of where other people are coming from," she said.
She noted that Facebook groups also are springing up during the pandemic to help people connect, and that people also need to maintain ties to those with whom they are close.
Mechanik said she shared the pen pal idea with a group of student affairs professionals, and many embraced it. Although the program is aimed at freshmen, others are participating. They are matched randomly without attempting to identify common interests.
Schools with students participating in the program now range from the Manhattan School of Music in New York to the University of Zambia in Africa.
Having someone from another part of the country with whom to chat and correspond has meant a lot to Gabby Linbrunner, who studies education at College of Saint Mary in Omaha.
"Right now, the world is a little intimidating. No one knows what tomorrow brings," Linbrunner said. "I find this to be extremely difficult to wrap my head around."
She said helping another student deal with the crisis also helps her cope.
Some students in the pen pal program have decided to use actual pens, said Samantha Harris, a sophomore at the University of South Florida. She has been paired with a student at the Manhattan music school.
"I'm an extreme extrovert and it's very odd to me to be cooped up," Harris said. "I thought why not get to know someone better? The pen pal program is helping."