Shipping it old-school with Pittsburgh Private Postal

Courtesy of Maura Fleming | Maura Fleming advertises her program, Pittsburgh Private Postal, during the Student EXPO on A-Walk last week.

Rio Scarcelli | staff writer

Sept. 9, 2021

Who thought the new wave would be writing letters?  For fifth-year  student Maura Fleming, this was her exact thought when creating Pittsburgh Private Postal: an anonymous, pen-pal exchange program. Pittsburgh Private Postal will start Sept. 13 and run through the rest of the semester.

“I wanted to give students a way to make a friend,” Fleming said. “I know especially for current freshman and sophomore students, a lot of the past year-and-a-half has been all remote.  They have not had much of a chance to get out on campus and make those kinds of connections.” 

To make her idea a reality, Fleming found herself posting her idea to Unpack U: a Pittsburgh-based project that sponsors college students looking to better the mental health of the community through innovative ideas. Fleming created the concept by herself, so having a sponsor was the next step in advancing her project.

“Unpack U had a competition called U Prize where university students would post ideas that they thought would better their campus or promote mental health. They would talk about their project, how much they believe it would cost and what supplies would be necessary to make this a reality,” Fleming said.

After advancing through the first round, a second session of applications narrowed the selection down to 14 participants and ideas. Each of the recipients received a mentor, and Fleming’s is the Penguins Foundation.

The ideas do not have to stop at Pittsburgh Private Postal. Unpack U is now holding their second round of applications for students with ideas, Fleming said. Pitches and budgets are due by Sept. 17.

The associates from the Penguins Foundation gave Fleming tips on budgeting, posting on social media and advertising within the area.  Advertisements then gave way to getting an estimate on the amount of materials needed.

“A lot of the funds went to stamps and envelopes.  I ordered stickers for everyone, and I gathered some prizes donated from the Penguin’s Foundation and from the grant itself,” Fleming said. “Anyone who currently signs up gets automatically entered into a Pittsburgh Penguins giveaway that could include hats, bobble-heads and t-shirts.”

Social media was her best asset in creating a buzz for the project, Fleming said. She contacted other recipients of U Prize to encourage them to spread the word at their own universities and convince others to join the program.

“Right now, I have mostly Duquesne students.  However, I have other locations such as Point Park, Robert Morris and even people all the way from the University of Tennessee. It is mainly Pittsburgh students; however, I have opened up the sign ups to everyone that is interested on social media,” Fleming said. 

Sign ups run through Sept. 13 and can be found on @pghpostal or her website.

“I am trying to match people up based on similar answers to forms, and so I have to go through all the responses to find that out,” Fleming said. “After what felt like a million tries,  I divided the questions into gender-identity, preference, interests, hobbies and what questions felt comfortable to the recipient.  I asked the question: ‘If I was doing this, what would I feel comfortable saying?’”

After receiving their match, the participant is given a stack of envelopes, stamps and stickers. Supplies will be held in the Duquesne Student Union building for two days after the shipment is received. Each participant is given a number. The even numbers start writing, and the odd numbers return the first message.

Writing is a vulnerable activity, and Fleming wanted to make the environment as comfortable as possible for the pen-pals in creating a relationship.

“We do not want to make this too much of a time commitment because people have classes and other things going on in their lives.  The program is expected to write around three letters back and forth to one-another through the semester.  At the end, my goal is to send a questionnaire to see if people want to know who their pen-pal is or keep it anonymous,” she said.

Since her social media was created, Fleming has received lots of positive feedback from students participating on campus.

Sophomore music education student Maddie Rivers said she felt very excited to know there was a program like Pittsburgh Private Postal in the area.  The idea of making a connection was something Rivers is eager to do.

“Since leaving for college last year, one of my favorite things has been writing letters to my friends who are either at school or still at home,” Rivers said. “It is a great way to keep in touch and I love getting mail.  So, when I heard about the Private Postal Program, it seemed right up my alley.”

The ultimate goal for Fleming when making Pittsburgh Private Postal was to provide students an outlet to express themselves and take time away from social media. 

“I say go for it because you never know where [the letters] can lead to. It is not a large time commitment at all,” Rivers said.  “Writing letters can take anywhere from around five-to-ten minutes for me.  It feels very therapeutic for a lot of people and it is a good and healthy way to express your emotions to someone who cares.”