A lot of students might think keeping up with their classes as a Harvard College senior is enough work for one semester. But for Frances Hisgen, the first job is to make sure first-year students are informed and supported when making the difficult transition from high school to college.
As an Eagle PAF — a student leader in the Peer Advising Fellow (PAF) program — the Currier House resident is also responsible for the well-being of her fellow PAFs: the sophomores, juniors, and seniors who work with first-years and create a supportive, tight-knit community on campus. And it’s a task that has become even harder during the pandemic.
“Being a PAF isn’t just about being there for first-years; it’s about joining a community yourself and getting to know other PAFs, because we’re whole people with struggles and quirks too,” said Hisgen, who is living in Somerville this semester. “The PAF community is fractured in an interesting way because of the pandemic, not just because of distance, but because it’s hard to have the mental reserves to be an adviser when people are going through so much.”
To provide support and connection to other PAFs and to others on campus, Hisgen decided to create an analog community-building project last fall: a snail-mail program called PAF Pals. She was inspired by New Yorker writer Rachel Syme, the creator of the #Penpalooza pen pal program, which formed at the beginning of the pandemic and now boasts more than 10,000 members.
Using a Google form, Hisgen invited other PAFs to sign up and start sending letters during the fall. About 20 people enrolled and sent an initial letter to their pen pals, and most have carried on a regular correspondence into the spring.