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Journeying to Faraway Places Before Freshman Year

Award-winning books prepare incoming students for college-level work and a diverse learning environment.

This summer, first-year college students from all over the country will journey to faraway places and exotic locales like the battlefields of Rwanda or the deserts of Arizona without ever leaving the comforts of home. Award-winning authors will guide students through a literary voyage via their required summer reading.

Every year hundreds of colleges and universities assign first-year students a common book to read over the summer months hoping to foster a sense of community among the newcomers and engage them academically.

According to a survey conducted last year by a student researcher at Gustavus Adolphus College, most of these summer reading programs are less than five years old.

The range of books colleges choose from is expansive, covering both fiction and non-fiction. Many emerge from a best seller list and address various issues of diversity. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah are popular choices.

Students at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, for example, will find themselves immersed in a violent and bloody civil war between two of Rwanda’s native tribes, the Tutsi and Hutu. Immaculée Ilibagiza, through the pages of her book, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, engulfs students in a miraculous story of endurance and survival.

For the past six years, SHU has tried to stimulate the minds of incoming freshmen during the summer with provocative stories of young people who have overcome adversity. The selection committee at SHU seeks to select a book that stimulates and inspires.

An American Story by Debra Dickerson, Sounds of the River: A Young Man’s University Days in Beijing by Da Chen and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night- Time by Mark Haddon are listed among the books read in years past.

“Given the choice, most students would choose to just vegetate over the summer. The goal of the summer reading program is to remind students that college is an intellectual activity,” says Dr. Tracy Gottlieb, dean of freshman studies at SHU.

“Each year, the Department of Freshman Studies chooses a book that explores a new diversity issue. SHU is very proud of its diverse undergraduate population. It is something that we try to nurture. Generally, the books are well received,” Gottlieb says.

According to the survey, more than 60 percent of respondents reported that their reading programs were successful and generally seen in a positive light. SHU students receive their summer reading assignment during freshman orientation that takes place in mid- July. The book serves as required reading for SHU’s mandatory freshman seminar course.

The university plans to host a visit by Ilibagiza later this year. The University of Washington is a long way from the hot, dusty Mexican border, but the issue of immigration isn’t, and UW students will tackle that topic with their literary selection. The Devil’s Highway: A True Story, written by Luis Alberto Urrea, documents the journey of 26 men who attempted to cross the Mexican border into the southern Arizona desert, an area known as the devil’s highway. Of the 26, only 12 men survived.

Urrea’s book is the third installment of the UW Common Book project, a program that aims to introduce first-year students to the university’s academic community through a common reading experience.

“The UW Common Book is about challenging freshmen to examine important issues,” says Dr. Ed Taylor, UW vice provost and dean of undergraduate academic affairs, the department overseeing the Common Book project. “Immigration stands among the significant matters that our community and world will face.”

Students receive the assigned book at their summer advising and orientation session, and they are expected to read it before the start of the academic semester.

A selection committee of 15 UW faculty and students representing various disciplines chose the book. “Urrea exposes the complexities of immigration in the United States today in a very direct way. We hope that reading this work will stimulate discussion among the freshmen and the community and bring a human perspective to the difficult issues of immigration policy and enforcement,” says Jill McKinstry, director of Odegaard Undergraduate Library and co-chair of the selection committee.

When Lori Phillips-Young, a first-year read program coordinator for the University of Dayton, saw the reviews from the Dalai Lama for author Mark Kurlansky’s Nonviolence: 25 Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea, she said the book would be a perfect read for incoming freshmen.

At the University of Dayton freshman orientation program, all students are required to read a faculty-selected text as preparation for collegiate academic engagement. Students are encouraged to build relationships with peers and professors through formal and informal discussion groups within the university.

The university’s aim is to provide a common experience that mirrors the Marianist ideals of inspiring and fostering spiritual academic growth, Young says.

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