Mary Barton Mayes Qingdao

Mary Barton Mayes lead the online event alongside Long Beach-Qingdao (LBQD) Sister City Association members from Long Beach and Qingdao, China.

"I didn't know a penpal could make money!"

Members of the Long Beach-Qingdao (LBQD) Sister City Association celebrated 18 student penpals from around the world during an online dinner event on Sunday, Sept. 27, for their work in the Digital Penpal Program. The contact between penpals kicked off in July with the help of Cal Poly Pomona, Cal State Long Beach and Qingdao University of Technology (QUT), with financial support from the Port of Long Beach.

During the Sunday meeting, nine of those students did receive money for their efforts to use toward school expenses. The opportunity was available to college students, with a goal of connecting students from different countries, encouraging them to share pieces of their days and weeks with with their penpal. And the theme fits with the LBQD objective: to foster connection between the people and businesses of Long Beach and Qingdao.

But the bigger picture is an exchange between two people and cultures, and that's something priceless, according to Mary Barton Mayes, former president of the organization. 

"I hope each of these young people make longtime friendships outside of this too," she said during the presentation. "You all have so much to offer each other."

While participants were free to communicate however they liked, some were awarded for going above and beyond. The penpals who creatively documented their virtual journey together were awarded the cash prizes.

Awards were presented in two categories — individual and pairs.

In the individual category, Sigi Zhao — also known as Cynthia —from QUT received third place, Gong Danrui — also known as Olivia — from QUT received second and Alishba Tayyab, a student from Pakistan studying at Cal Poly Pomona, walked away with the first place prize.

Alishba's standout presentation included videos of her cooking, taking photos around her neighborhood and showcasing the exchanges she and her penpal exchanged in the last few months.

"Sharing food is popular among the penpals," Mayes said. 

In the team category, Liu Guiyu — also known as Gwen — from QUT and Kai John from CSULB took home third place, Willa Mukasa from South Eastern Kenya University and Marcelo Pontes Cabus Masur, a Brazilian student studying at Cal Poly Pomona, won second and Shao Ran —also known as Regina — from QUT and Maria Elizalde from CSULB earned first place for their combined efforts.

"One thing I have learned. Instead of concentrating on the differences, we should look at our commonalities," Regina said. 

Regina and her partner, Maria, bonded on clothing and makeup. Between their busy school schedules, they made time for makeup challenges, sharing photos of their days and video chatting through the week. The pair became lifelong friends, they said in a video documenting their time as penpals. 

While usual operations have halted because of the coronavirus pandemic — including annual summit trips and in-person meetings — there's still plenty to do that can help connect people and countries, Mayes said.

"We hope to make (the program) bigger and better, taking advantage of technology and letting the young people shine through their scholarship projects at the end, if they chose to enter," she said. "Some are just happy with the pen pal part, and that’s okay with us, too."

For more information about the Long Beach-Qingdao Sister City Association, or other sister cities, go to

Stephanie Stutzman can be reached at

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