Unsent – The Letter Project promotes self-expression in the USC student community

Senior Isabella Escalona encourages students across campus to anonymously write whatever is on their minds and display their letters for others to connect with.

Photo of letters written on white notebook paper hanging in a line on a tent.

Unsent – The Letter Project, a bi-weekly event organized by USC Senior Isabella Escalona, provides a safe space for students to release emotions that range from excitement and hope to loss and grief through anonymous letters. As a part of the event, a tent will be set up on Mondays at the Hahn Plaza and on Fridays at the USC Village from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

An array of the students’ heartfelt letters are displayed around the tent for spectators to empathize and resonate with. Through her efforts, Escalona aims to facilitate an environment where students can recognize their peers’ struggles and accomplishments, as well as their own.

In an interview with Annenberg Media, Escalona describes her project as a celebration of “the shared capacity to be human.” When asked why she felt inspired to start the letter project, Escalona credits an English course she took last year that discussed how different forms of writing can bring about various forms of closeness. She wanted to create The Letter Project to give everyone the opportunity to be truthful and vulnerable.

Escalona added, “I realized that not only do we grow closer to ourselves and our own truths by writing letters, but when you read the letter of another person, you grow closer to them, even though they’re a stranger. You walk around and you read letters of joy, pain, excitement, heartache, and you feel closer to the person who wrote it without ever knowing who they are.”

At the event on Friday, many students walking past the tent stopped to read the letters. Resonating with the words of others, some were encouraged to write their own. Sophomore Christopher Sullivan was inspired to write an uplifting message addressed to “Dear Stranger.” He says, “Sometimes, we just need a push from someone like that. It doesn’t have to be someone you know.”

Escalona is majoring in narrative studies with a minor in social change. Through her project, she is championing social change by allowing students to express themselves with the reassurance that their letters are anonymous. She recounts that these letters “accept the absence of an audience.” While the letters remain “unsent,” the act of writing them successfully acts as a form of cathartic release.

A parent of a future USC student, Rashmi Bhandari, was deeply moved by the words written by students. She said, “Self-expression of any kind is a cathartic experience. And when you offer a space for a cathartic experience, I think it’s just wonderful for your mental health and for your sense of belonging and for your sense of feeling whole and feeling grounded.”

Letters are saved to story highlights on Escalona’s personal Instagram account. The recipients include parents, friends, exes, the deceased, future selves and more.

Ben Richard, a first-year master’s student, expressed how he’s been “holding in a lot of feelings” after recently moving to Los Angeles.

“Coming here, I haven’t really had the chance to connect with my family. It’s been giving me a lot of reflection time,” Richard said. He addressed the letter to his family, which helped him “express emotions without tying my identity to it.”

The letters are diverse in content; some are heartbreaking and deep, while others are funny and contain doodles. When given the chance to express themselves creatively, people write in whatever language, style, or handwriting they please. Letters range from short lines to paragraphs to poems.

Escalona mentions that some of her favorite quotes are “Cruelty is woven into our bones and it’s our strength to defy it,” and “I am full with the absence of you.” Her treasured part of the project is watching people encounter the exhibit for the first time.

“[I love] seeing people read other people’s letters and ultimately decide, you know what? I want to try this too,” Escalona said.

Escalona hopes to turn her passion project into a book for people to enjoy. She saves all the letters and reads them never knowing whether it will evoke laughter or a tear. She describes her future book as a “collection of letters that speak all kinds of human truths” but for now, the project remains a safe space for students to express what’s on their mind.