Pen Pals across the Pacific: journalism students bridge cultures during coronavirus pandemic

In late February, posing in front of the map of China, the students of Jock Lauterer's Community Journalism class at UNC-CH are writing and receiving emails from Chinese college student pen pals relative to the coronavirus pandemic. The class includes, front row, left to righ, AJ O'Leary, Molly Weisner, Gianna Tahan, Sasha Schroeder, Korie Dean, Maydha Devarajan and Victoria Johnson; back row, standing, left to right, Julia Masters, Matthew Audilet, Jock Lauterer, Sophia Wilhelm, Andrew Dundas, Victor Hensley, Landon Bost and Jazmine Bunch. (Photo by Ryan Tuck)

Publisher’s Note: Ordinarily, a news outlet doesn’t write stories about itself; this is the exception to the rule. When my 7th study/teaching trip to China got cancelled this spring due to the virus, I began wondering if there wasn’t something we could do anyway. And therein lies the tale.

Over 7,000 miles separate the students of UNC-Chapel Hill from their peers at the Communication University of China in Beijing.

Yet students at both universities found a way to make that distance feel small. 

With the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19 forcing students to move back home from university and cope with the uncertainty of quarantine, community seemed reduced to whatever the internet could provide. 

But for the students in Jock Lauterer’s Community Journalism course and Professor Chen Kai’s classes, email was just enough to connect from a world away.

Professor Chen Kai of the Communication University of China in Beijing works with her students. (Staff photo by Jock Lauterer)

Connecting through crisis

“I should give the credit to Jock for coming up with the pen-pal idea,” Chen said in an email. “If my memory is right, he proposed the idea in early February when the epidemic was very serious in China. I bet, at that time, nobody (Jock and I are no exceptions) expected the same scenario would be repeated in USA one month later.”

Chen said the pen-pal idea surfaced as a way to offer support to Chinese students who were isolated in their homes, away from their friends, academics and the comforts of a daily routine. 

One student, Ziyi Wang, said the words from afar were both uplifting and fun.

“I have never experienced having a pen-pal. But it’s the days when we are isolated that make pen-pals more precious,” Wang said. “Having a pen-pal in America whose life is different when we first began to communicate with each other is comforting and exciting, which will keep my mental health.”

But not long after the New Year, coronavirus began to spread in the U.S. By the end of spring break on March 11, UNC-CH alerted students that the University would cancel the following week of classes and transition to online courses afterward.

Students in China had already been transitioning classes to virtual-only mediums.

“I am a tech idiot, however, with the guidance and tolerance of my students, the online class improves every day, going much better than expected,” Chen said. 

By early April, cases in the U.S. surpassed 200,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

By then, social distancing had become a new part of the daily routine for millions in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus and protect high-risk people. 

“I thought this was a really good experience for all of us,” said Sasha Schroeder, a student in Lauterer’s class and sophomore at UNC-CH. “It made the world feel a lot smaller, and it’s comforting to know that there are people who have been through the same thing that we’re going through. And that they’re slowly recovering and going back to their normal lives.”

In this photo from last spring’s work trip to China, Jock Lauterer captures Chinese college graduates sharing a selfie.

Bridging the cultural gap

But the letters weren’t just a source of comfort. Students learned how cultural differences influenced what their respective countries were doing to address the pandemic.

“Even with a tiny issue like wearing a face mask, which have nothing to do with ideology or political system, we stand on the opposite end of a spectrum and can’t understand each other,” Chen said. “The difference between us always remind me of the time zone apart: daytime in USA is just nighttime in China. Black or white, depending on where you stand.”

But at the same time, the 18 letters sent across the globe to China made a small dent in the wall separating the two cultures.

Many of Chen’s students echoed that when the media made their quarantine rules look oppressive and excessive, many students and their families took willingly to the guidelines because it was a matter of safety, not liberty.

“Maybe it’s no longer hard for Americans to understand why it’s easy for us to seal off the city and isolate the citizens in Wuhan, and it’s no longer difficult for us to understand why most American refuse to wear facial masks and refuse to stay at home,” wrote Chinese student Evelyn Wang. “I’m not judging which lifestyle is better; I just hope making connections can help us understand each other better and don’t criticize others just because we are different.”

Politics, philosophy and poetry all found a way into the letters, offering what some students said was knowledge otherwise buried by mainstream media coverage or social media.

Students from Prof. Chen Kai’s English class at Beijing’s Communication University of China are writing their pen pal letters from their homes, denoted by the map pins, in cities ranging from the far north to the south — roughly the relative geographic spread from Maine to Florida. (Staff photo by Jock Lauterer

Challenges of media coverage

The commentary on fair and equitable media coverage remains a challenge that Chen said is of utmost importance right now.

“In China, this is dark time for journalists, to be specific, the mainstream, mouthpiece ones who always dance with chains on,” Chen said. “During the crisis, lack of certainty makes the situation worse.”

As media coverage of coronavirus continues, the small group of students who shared their experiences set a positive example during this time of crisis. 

“This is golden time to observe the human, the society and country, as well as the universe from different aspects,” Chen said.