Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Campus-Community Involvement
Diversity Digest Volume 9, Number 2

Diversity Digest
Volume 9,
Number 2

Download our print issue (PDF)
Campus-Community Connections
Intercultural Learning for Inclusive Excellence
Why Allen and Joan Bildner and the Bildner Family Foundation Funded a Statewide Diversity Initiative
Learning to Listen as We Lead
Institutional Models That Cultivate Comprehensive Change
Curricular Transformation
Where Worlds Converge
Curricular Transformation through Collaborative Teaching
Intercultural Learning in First-Year Seminars
Designing Intercultural and Cross-cultural Spaces
Enhancing Collaborative Leadership of Faculty and Staff
Faculty-Driven Curricular Change
Diversity as Shared Practice
Dialogue Groups at Princeton University Library
Faculty Involvement
Epistles, Posters, and Pizza
Forging Campus-Community Connections
"Beyond Food"
Cross-cultural by Design
Student Experience
Something to Declare
Putting Student Voices in Public Spaces
Café Bergen
Institutional Leadership and Committment
Assessing Diversity Attitudes in First-Year Students
Infusing Cultural Competency into Health Professions Education

Epistles, Posters, and Pizza: Letter-Exchange Programs at Rutgers–Camden

By Holly Blackford, writing director, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, Camden



On a warm spring day in April of this year, in Rutgers–Camden’s Robeson Library, I sat down for pizza with two culturally different groups of students. The predominantly white group included twenty-one Rutgers freshmen who were in their final weeks of Christine Fitzsimons’s Composition II course. The predominantly African American group included twenty-five students from Joy Martin’s English class at Camden’s LEAP Academy High School, a university charter school that serves one of the poorest cities in the country. The shorts and T-shirts of the freshmen contrasted with the long-sleeved shirts and dress blazers of the LEAP students. But both groups of students were smiling as they helped themselves to second slices before heading to the CompPoster Fair, a poster exhibition of research conducted by writing program students of Rutgers.

Over pizza they chatted about educational, community, and personal issues. The high school students spoke of how difficult it was to decide to attend LEAP. The uniform alienated them from their home communities; college aspirations conflicted with desires to work and stay with friends and family. The Rutgers–Camden students listened and responded with advice on how to make a college career feasible. While candidly commenting on the difficulties of college life, they also were adamant in asserting that LEAP students would have better opportunities if they went to college, which made the difficulties well worth it in the end.

This conversation was the culmination of a semester-long letter-exchange program between the two groups. The topic of the diversity of the Garden State guided their exchange of perspectives on community affairs, educational experiences, and books and films. Both groups were honing writing skills by drafting and revising their letters, and both provided editorial advice on one another’s letters. This combined focus on sharing views and improving writing was an important part of the project. Excellent writing is a primary means by which individuals and communities can effectively communicate with and understand one another.

In the “epistolary exchange program,” composition students exchanged letters with freshmen at West Philadelphia High School, who similarly came to campus for pizza and a trip to the CompPoster Fair. The 2004 letters focused on the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. In their letters the students reflected on the meaning and legacy of integration, a poignant area of inquiry given that a majority of Rutgers–Camden students are white, while a majority of surrounding communities are not.

The poster fair’s 2005 Garden State theme reflected the diversity of New Jersey by showcasing diners, farms, folklore, casinos, cities, arts, films, and music. As I followed clusters of students to the fair, I heard them talking about various topics, from college dating to practical majors. When we got to the fair, the conversations ceased and were replaced by exclamations. Writing program students stood by their projects, ready for questions. The LEAP students paused to admire a painstakingly made model of the Whitman Bridge; they gathered to play a miniature game of roulette at a presentation on Atlantic City; they laughed at a particularly humorous poster that superimposed images of nineteenth-century poet Walt Whitman, a former Camden resident, into photographs of contemporary Camden.

Many LEAP students, jackets now tossed over shoulders or tied at waists, gathered before the posters on Camden itself, posters that posited opinions about the redevelopment of Camden neighborhoods. They pointed and spoke quietly. “That’s where my mom grew up,” said one. “I know that place,” said another. “That’s my corner,” said a third. Both groups of students learned more than composition that day. They learned that it is possible to communicate despite and through our differences. I hope we all can learn that great institutions and teachers can play a leading role in making sure these communications occur.

Questions, comments, and suggested resources should be directed to campbell@aacu.org.
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