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NerdScholar’s Favorite Summer Reading Programs

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College freshmen talk about high school about as much as they talk about college. That’s especially true during their first week on campus. Why? Because even though students are from widely different backgrounds, the high school experience connects them. It’s a universal language of sorts, and students rely on it to communicate and forge new relationships in an unfamiliar place.

But that keeps students focused on the past rather than engaged with the present. To prepare students for new experiences and academic life, some colleges and universities have developed innovative summer reading programs that not only foster a sense of community through shared experience, but also encourage students to participate in academic culture before they arrive on campus.

With summer well underway, we at NerdScholar wanted to single out these schools for using reading to transform high school graduates into college freshmen. Summer reading programs at these schools fall into one of the following four categories:

  • Common Experience
  • College Academic Life Preparation
  • Community Involvement and Leadership
  • Fine Arts and Music

Common Experience

University of Missouri

Begun in 2004, Mizzou Reads is the University of Missouri’s way of providing all incoming freshman with a common experience that sparks discussion with fellow students, faculty, and staff. It’s designed to help members of the MU community “challenge their assumptions of issues of civil, social, and cultural importance,” as well as “stimulate the process of examining one’s life, values, and goals with the intent of growing and developing as an educated person and life long learner.” Over the summer, students must read the year’s selected book and keep a reading journal. Then faculty, staff, administrators, and even advanced undergraduates lead book discussions throughout MU’s Fall Welcome Week. This year’s book is Blake Mycoskie’s Start Something That Matters, a book that will inspire entrepreneurs to start businesses and organizations that make a difference.

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Launched in 2012 and cosponsored by the Student Success Center and the Center for Instructional and Professional Development, UWM’s Common Reading Experience is designed to create opportunities for students to interact with each other and to connect with a faculty member during the Fall Welcome program. This year’s selected reading is Kao Kalia Yang’s The Latehomecomer, a memoir about the Hmong diaspora and the Yang family’s struggles fleeing Thailand and immigrating to the United States. Small groups of students will discuss Yang’s book with UWM faculty during Fall Welcome in late August, and Yang herself will visit campus to give a lecture on October 7.

Academic Life Preparation

The University of North Carolina

The Carolina Summer Reading Program is geared largely toward preparing students for academic life at UNC. Faculty and staff lead small discussions groups, where students develop a sense of what to expect from future classes. The discussion groups also give incoming freshmen and transfer students an opportunity interact with and learn from each other. Each year’s selection is chosen by the Book Selection Committee, which includes faculty, staff, and students from across the university. This year’s book is Toni Morrison’s Home, a novel about race and identity in the American South during the 1950s.

Eckerd College

Unlike the other summer programs, Eckerd College’s is geared toward not just a discussion and lecture, but a writing assignment. This year’s selected book is Pulitzer-prize winner Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which won the 2012 National Book Award for Nonfiction. During the first two weeks of Fall semester, students will discuss the book in class and write a paper based on a pre-circulated reading guide. Later on, Katherine Boo will visit Eckerd to give a lecture on her work and interact with students.

Smith College

Begun in 1999, Smith College’s Summer Reading is part of the First-Year Experience, a series of events and activities that introduce incoming students to the academic, cultural and social life of the campus. During orientation, first-year students participate in small group discussions focused on the assigned reading. This year’s selection is Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography, My Beloved World.

Duke University

Duke University’s Summer Reading is part of first-year program intended to help freshmen make a smooth transition to collegiate life. To that end, the Summer Reading “is designed to create a common touch point for incoming students.” Duke generally arranges a visit from the book’s author, and students engage in small discussion groups with First-Year Advisory Counselors. This year’s selection is Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, a novel about Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the World Trade Center buildings and the impact his achievement had on the New Yorkers who witnessed it.

Community Involvement and Leadership

Middle Tennessee State University

Created in 2002 by the Assistant Dean of the University College, the Summer Reading Program at MTSU should not just “encourage intellectual interaction among students,” but also “affirm the importance of reading for a successful and fulfilling life.” The program fulfills that aim by bringing together the entire campus and local communities. Faculty across the university use the year’s selected book in their Fall courses, and members of the local community organize reading groups for discussion. MTSU even brings the author to campus for the University Convocation, where he delivers the keynote address. This year’s author is R. Dwayne Betts, whose A Question of Freedom is about Betts’s time in prison and how books and writing helped him regain the life he’d lost.

Whitman College

Whitman College uses its Summer Reading Program not only to engage students in intellectual discussion, but also to introduce them to the campus academic community. Students complete the assigned reading before Fall Orientation, and once on campus they attend an afternoon panel session with three Whitman faculty, who offer discipline-specific responses to the book. The Provost and Dean of the Faculty moderates the panel, which is supposed to expose students to different research perspectives and generate debate in their small group discussions with a Resident Assistant and Student Academic Advisor. Like MTSU, Whitman opens its summer reading program to the local community: the College purchases copies of the selected book for local libraries and encourages residents to attend the panel session. This year’s book is Claude M. Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. Steele is a social psychologist in the School of Education at Stanford University, and his book explores the insidious effects of negative stereotyping.

Montana State University

Part of its Freshmen Convocation, MSU’s Summer Reading is a big event that kicks off the new academic year and welcomes students to campus. This year’s selection is Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, a novel that won the Mann Booker Prize and that director Ang Lee turned into an Academy Award-nominated film. Martel will attend MSU’s Convocation and give the keynote address, and his speech will launch MSU’s “Year of Engaged Leadership,” a campaign to inspire members of the MSU community to become better everyday leaders.


Fine Arts and Music

University of Pennsylvania

Established in 1991, the Penn Reading Project gives incoming students their first opportunity to engage with faculty and senior staff in intellectual discussion and debate. Students and faculty are divided into small groups, and the hour-long discussion sections form a central part of the New Student Orientation. This year’s selected reading is Adam Bradley’s Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, a rigorous analysis of hip-hop from the perspective of history and contemporary poetry. The event will kick off Penn’s Year of Sound, a series of Provost-sponsored events that will investigate sound and its significance to our lives.