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Summer reading starts the conversation for incoming freshmen

Salisbury University freshmen will read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks this summer.
Salisbury University freshmen will read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks this summer.
Nancy Griesemer

Each year, hundreds of colleges and universities assign a book as “common reading” to incoming freshmen.

And since 2010, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) has been studying these assignments to find out what books are selected, how many and what kinds of colleges have such programs, and how these books are integrated into academics.

Used as popular vehicles for introducing the all-important freshman first year experience, freshman reading programs provide interesting sneak previews of what colleges consider important, controversial, or just plain interesting.

And they often set the tone for wonderful things to come, as freshmen make life-changing transitions from high school to college.

Unlike traditional “required reading” assignments designed for students to get a little ahead or keep in the practice of reading over the summer, college programs are more targeted to helping “start the conversation” during freshman orientation.

“Common reading programs may seem at first glance peripheral to campus life because they are extra-curricular...But the choice of a single book for this for this purpose can be a powerful signal to students (and to faculty members) about the college’s educational priorities,” suggests NAS researchers in their 2013 Beach Books report.

And even the most benign “first year experience” assignments can spark controversy.

In April 2011, 60 Minutes ran an exposé on Greg Mortenson, whose books Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools had become wildly popular freshman reading. Shortly after, the books were quietly jettisoned from summer 2011 reading lists and invitations to speak were withdrawn.

So what have freshmen been reading since? Based on an analysis of 390 colleges and universities, the NAS found the most frequently-selected book (31 institutions) for 2012-13 was the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (ethics in research) by Rebecca Skloot.

The second most assigned, chosen by 18 colleges and universities, was The Other Wes More: One Name, Two Fates. Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town by Warren St. John was the third most popular book, assigned by nine schools.

Other frequently-assigned books were Litle Princes by Conor Grennan, Wine to Water by Doc Hendley, Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Never Let Me Go by Kazou Ishiguro, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers.

A quick review of this year’s reading selections for the Class of 2018 suggest quite a bit of diversity:

  • Clemson University: Machine Man by Max Barry
  • Columbia University: The Illiad by Homer (the College) and The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner (SEAS)
  • Cornell University: The Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio by Amara Lakhous
  • Marquette University: March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell
  • Millsaps College: Half the Sky by Micholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
  • North Carolina State University: Tomorrow’s Table by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak
  • Occidental College: The Speech by Gary Younge
  • Princeton University: Meaning in Life and Why it Matters by Susan Wolf
  • Rice University: Photography as Activism by Michelle Bogre
  • Smith College: Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele
  • Tulane University: Hope Against Hope by Sarah Carr
  • University of Massachusetts Dartmouth: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
  • UNC-Chapel Hill: The Round House by Louise Erdrich
  • University of Idaho: Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen
  • University of Wisconsin: I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

Not to be left out, many local colleges and universities are incorporating summer reading into their 2014 freshman orientation activities.

For example, students at the University of Richmond will read The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community by Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis, while Georgetown University's summer reading program will feature Dinaw Mengestu and his latest novel, All Our Names.

Taking a cue from one of last year’s most popular freshman assignments, Longwood University will be reading The Other Wes Moore, and first year students at Johns Hopkins University will read Happier, by Tal Ben-Shahar.

At American, freshmen will read The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone. Not only will Gladsone visit AU to discuss the book on September 3, but students will also have the opportunity to win $200 in an essay contest following the presentation.

Further to the east, freshmen at Salisbury University will read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Members of the Lacks family will participate in a moderated question-and-answer session and sign copies of the book on Thursday, August 21, in Perdue Hall’s Bennett Family Auditorium.

Established in 1998, Virginia Tech’s Common Book Project is designed to enrich the first-year experience and create “sense of community for undergraduate students.” This year, Tech students will be joining students at University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Saint Louis University, and Wingate University in reading Little Princes by Conor Grennan.

Going in a slightly different direction, first year students at Virginia Commonwealth University have been assigned The Circle, by Dave Eggers. The University of South Carolina is also assigning the Eggers book to freshmen.

Goucher students will join freshmen at Bucknell University in reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a psychological thriller by Mohsin Hamid.

George Washington University requires all incoming freshmen students to participate in a summer reading program, the book for which will be The Good Food Revolution, by Will Allen. South Dakota State University is assigning the same book to freshmen.

But it's at Catholic University where the most innovative, multimedia summer reading program may be found.

Departing from traditional freshman assignments, Dr. Todd Lidh, director the CUA First Year Experience, created In a Sense All things: A CUA Primer. In this web-based assignment book, he links a wide range of authors, genres, time, periods, and media to exemplify questions, themes, and ideas students will encounter in freshman classes.

Note: High school students looking for some good reading this summer might check out some of the books on freshmen reading lists.

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