Thousands of high school graduates are spending the summer preparing for their first day of college, which in many cases means they will be spend at least a few hours completing their first homework assignment—paging through their college’s summer reading book of choice.
Colleges everywhere are catching on to the trend of selecting a common book for incoming students to read over summer, an effort that introduces them more quickly to academic life. The value in the program comes from not only encouraging students to analyze the themes of a complex novel, but in joining their peers and faculty in an intellectual discussion during orientation.
Summer reading programs are a recent phenomenon, having been adopted only in the past twenty years and gaining real momentum since 2007. Yet these programs—often known as Common Reading or One Book One Campus programs—have experienced just as much pushback as they have support. The National Association of Scholars (NAS) has criticized colleges for often selecting ‘beach books,’ or rather books that do little to challenge students in a new and interesting way. But according to an Inside Higher Ed reporter, Allie Grasgreen, NAS still “generally agrees that such programs have value: less than a study of literature, they’re a tool to boost students’ critical thinking and social skills during the transition to campus.”
As colleges switch gears from commencement season to prepare for the arrival of their new freshman classes this fall, NerdScholar gathered a list of some of the most engaging novels being read by incoming students this summer. From topics of social injustices to civil liberties and sustainability, these novels and the schools behind them have a lot to teach the incoming class of 2018.
The College of New Jersey — Most Collaborative
The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore
As one of the longest running programs to make our list, The College of New Jersey’s Summer Reading initiative is an integral part of the First Year Experience for new students. This year, the program will focus on the theme of “justice” in reading The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates. Author Wes Moore walks readers through the parallel lives of two people, who are raised in the same city with the same name, yet follow very different life paths. To end the program on a high note, Moore will join the students in a discussion of the issues raised in the book during the college’s orientation week. According to Lisa Grimm, psychology professor and coordinator of TCNJ’s First Seminar program, 95% percent of incoming students typically read the novel and attend the discussion, while also writing their first academic essay prior to the meeting. Academic courses and campus events will continue to discuss the theme throughout the year in order to help new students acclimate to intellectual life on campus.
2013 Summer Reading Book: The Big Truck that Went By by Jonathan Katz
Kalamazoo College — Most Immersive
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
Kalamazoo’s Summer Common Reading program is now in its 14th year and run by the school’s nationally recognized First Year Experience initiative. Unique from past selected summer reading books, this year’s novel, We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, depicts the story of a young girl’s journey from Zimbabwe to, astoundingly, Kalamazoo, Michigan. The author will partake in the college’s 2014 orientation to discuss the novel with new students. As an added bonus, Bulawayo is also invited to address the same students during their graduation from Kalamazoo in four years’ time.
In light of the programs values, Zaide Pixley, the dean of the First Year and Advising at Kalamazoo, says that “to share a book means we all begin ‘on the same page’—literally. We hope that, through reading this book attentively, discussing it with peers and faculty, connecting it to other academic disciplines at [Kalamazoo] and making it relevant to students in surprising ways, the [common reading] experience will be seen as a microcosm of, and a model for, a liberal arts education.”
2013 Summer Reading Book: In the Shadows of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
Montana State University — Most Inspiring
I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
Becoming a wildly popular read in the realm of education, I Am Malala is a truly inspiring story about a young woman’s fight for equal access to education. Montana State University’s freshman convocation program, held annually for freshman at the start of the fall semester, seeks to embolden incoming students to explore the hardships Malala Yousafzai describes in her autobiography.
In addition to reading the novel, MSU will offer its incoming students a chance to discuss the story with Shiza Shahid, co-founder and CEO of the Malala Fund, at the school’s new student convocation event. When asked about her experience with the book thus far, one incoming student says, “I am overwhelmed at what others in the world go through for an education that can be so easy to take for granted.”
“This year’s convocation will be electrifying as we celebrate youthful champions who are already making a difference—who fully appreciate the value of access to education, and show valor in defending it,” adds MSU Provost Martha Potvin.
2013 Summer Reading Book: The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Eastern Illinois University — Most Diverse
My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
According to the university, new students who complete the summer reading assignment and partake in discussion “have a higher grade point average after one semester.” Now in its eighth year, the latest Eastern Reads book is encouraging its freshman students to critically examine issues of social justice, religion, faith and patriotism through the memoirs of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Incoming Eastern students are asked to read her book, My Beloved World, prior to orientation in late August, when they will meet with each other, faculty and staff for the first time to examine how “personal beliefs are established and change over time.” Kimberlie Moock, director of Eastern’s New Student Programs, says the Eastern Reads program “fosters a common academic community and gives students an opportunity to form connections with faculty and peers outside of the classroom.”
2013 Summer Reading Book: The Submission by Amy Waldman
Utah State University — Most Inclusive
Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
A classic novel that dates all the way back to 1818, Frankestein is often a popular choice among college summer reading initiatives. Utah State’s 2014 summer reading program in particular asks students to share their reflections of the novel in a unique online collaboration space with peers and faculty. The online module, designed by professors in the school’s English and Philosophy departments, “includes a series of videos that talk about the author, highlight differences between the book and film adaptations, and discuss science and morality,” Lisa Hancock, director of student orientation and transition services at Utah State, says. Students are also encouraged to answer discussion questions and watch the 1931 Frankenstein film for context prior to reading the book. Utah’s Common Literature program will conclude with freshman orientation convocation, where faculty and students will “discuss how the themes of the book relate to the students’ transition to college.”
2013 Summer Reading Book: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind By William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
Washington State University — Most Informative
Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash by Edward Humes
Washington State University boasts an impressive common reading program whose focus this year is to raise awareness about issues of environmental sustainability. In Garbology, author Edward Humes discusses the social and environmental implications of the American trend to produce high volumes of waste every year. Washington State’s Common Reading program seeks to shed light on this growing problem in society and teach its students to be critical of their own carbon footprint. Karen Weathermon, co-director of the school’s common reading program, says, “the range of topics raised by Garbology will lead to meaningful activities with program partners such as Residential Life, Dining Services, Facility Operations and WSU’s excellent research initiatives involving sustainability.”
The program is expected to draw in quite a following among incoming students and faculty alike. According to Mary F. Wack, WSU’s vice provost for undergraduate education, the program “has caught on more than anyone might have anticipated” since its inception in 2007. The university finds “new ways to connect students, faculty and staff with each other as a community of learners and engages [them] with big questions, questions that don’t have obvious answers.”
2013 Summer Reading Book: Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz
Coastal Carolina University — Most Enriching
Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation by John Carlin
Often revered as one of the most humble political leaders of our time, Nelson Mandela has had a lasting effect on the landscape of higher education. The historical and academic significance is in part what prompted Coastal Carolina University (CCU) to select John Carlin’s book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, as their 2014 Big Read program novel. The program is comprised of a year-round committee whose mission is to select “a book that will not only create a shared intellectual experience for all incoming students, but also spark an interest in reading different types of fiction and non-fiction,” says Brianne Paker, coordinator of CCU’s Big Read program.
Playing the Enemy is a captivating read in a long list of Big Read selections over the years. With hundreds of students, faculty, and staff participating in the move-in weekend discussion, Paker adds, “we are so proud that we have such a huge response from the community to facilitate these discussions.” John Carlin’s Nelson Mandela novel will be discussed on CCU’s campus over the course of the semester—as part of movie nights, faculty panels, and guest speaker events.
2013 Summer Reading Book: Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with his Mother by Sonia Nazario
Note: Superlatives, noted in green, are inclusive of the group of schools listed in this article only.
Book image courtesy of Shutterstock.