Service Stories: Write a Letter, Leave a Mark

Thursday, Jan 11, 2018
by Isabel Ruehl '20

Service Stories is a new weekly feature in conjunction with the Pace Center's weekly newsletter. This week we spotlight Letters to Strangers, a Pace Center student organization. 

“Writing is humanity distilled into ink,” writes Diana Chao ’21, executive director of Letters to Strangers, in the student organization's official mission statement . “I know personally that when all you understand is emptiness, one letter—one human connection—can save a life.”

In 2013, Diana founded L2S to destigmatize mental illness through letter-writing, peer counseling, and political lobbying. Above all, this organization aims to cultivate empathy and connection so that no one feels alone—and, since its founding, it has blossomed into an international force. So far L2S has impacted more than 27,000 people across three continents.

Here at Princeton, Diana founded a chapter of L2S in the fall of 2017 through the Pace Center for Civic Engagement.
“College campus is a breeding ground for mental illness, trauma, concern, et cetera,” she explained. “This whole idea of effortless perfection is definitely an issue at Princeton.”

Officially established in October 2017, the group now has around 15 members—mostly first-year students, with some sophomores and juniors—who meet every Monday evening in the Pace Center Lounge to discuss and implement various strategies for mental health advocacy. Thus far, the group has hosted two events: a holiday letter-writing station in December 2017 and the Dean’s Date Letter Exchange, which ran this past week in preparation for Dean’s Date.

“It is no secret that Princeton can sometimes be a lonely and stressful place for many students,” said Vice President Beatrice Ferguson ’21, explaining that L2S seeks to “inspire an open and empathetic connection between two complete strangers” in order to counter this sense of isolation. 

She added, “Writing a letter gives you a space for reflection, and receiving one may be the reminder you need to be kind to yourself, take a deep breath, and recognize that you are not, in fact, alone.”

During the December letter-writing event, L2S set up a table and invited passersby to write holiday greetings. Stationary and mailing services were provided, and Diana described the event as a “huge success.” Letters were posted to seven countries—and meant a great deal to their writers here on campus.

“There was a girl from India who wrote some letters, and afterwards she was crying and thanked me a lot,” Diana recalled. “She was emotionally moved because she felt so bad about not being able to go home. This made her feel a lot better.”

The group anticipates a similarly positive response to their Dean’s Date Letter exchange, during which students will receive an anonymous letter. In these weeks leading up to Dean’s Date, L2S blasted listservs to solicit such letters, in which students reflect on their past experiences and provide encouragement and kindness.

“We’ve received fantastic and thoughtful responses from so many students!” Beatrice said. “We plan to have future letter exchanges and hope that they can make campus a kinder and more connected place.”

L2S has already made campus a ‘kinder’ and ‘more connected place’ by cultivating a space for reflection and connection, whether on paper or in weekly meetings. If you are interested in joining L2S or participating in upcoming events, please don’t hesitate to email Diana (dianachao@princeton.edu).


Pictured: Students pen notes to send home at L2S’s holiday letter-writing event. Photo courtesy of Diana Chao.