Written by Kelly K. Nelson ’10
Every fall first-year college and university students across the country engage in rather ordinary conversation in a desperate effort to meet new classmates: Where are you from? What’s your major? What did you do in high school? But the Reading in Common Program at Gustavus has elevated the level of conversation among first-year Gusties. Since the program was started 10 years ago, it has not been unusual to hear students discuss topics ranging from the rise of contemporary China to the internal political turmoil within Afghanistan, or the treacherous journey made by Central Americans who immigrate illegally to the United States.
The Reading in Common Program at Gustavus began in 1999 to provide an academic component to New Student Orientation. Incoming students read the selected book the summer before college and discuss it with their Orientation Group in the fall. The program also invites faculty and staff participation, which gives students a feel for the intellectually stimulating interaction that they can expect in their future classes.
New Student Orientation Coordinator and Director of Student Activities Megan Ruble says that the program selection committee seeks a book that ideally contains a combination of themes to generate discussion on current issues, presents a story or characters that first-year students can relate to, and is in line with Gustavus’s five core values: community, excellence, faith, justice and service.
“It is not just first-years that read the book,” Ruble explains. The program is held in high regard throughout the campus community. Over 80 percent of first-year students typically read the book in addition to the various upper-class students, members of the faculty, and individuals from the St. Peter community.
The 2009 Reading in Common selection was Enrique’s Journey, an illegal immigration story by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sonia Nazario. It’s about a Honduran boy who makes a dangerous journey riding on the tops of trains through Central America to the United States as an illegal immigrant on a quest to find his mother.
A high priority of the Reading in Common selection committee is bringing the author to campus for a visit in the fall. Nazario came to Gustavus on Sept. 28, 2009, for a full day of classroom visits, a book signing at the St. Peter Library, and a free public lecture that evening. Nazario made the same journey as Enrique did, through Central America. She took the trip on two separate occasions over a three-month period in an attempt to understand migrant children’s dangerous experiences. She described feeling “tense, filthy, and in fear of being raped.” She went on to explain, “This is just a small fraction of what these kids go though.”
Enrique’s Journey is just one example of the many inspiring stories read by the Gustavus community as part of the Reading in Common Program. Others have included Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and The Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka. “Readers are inspired by the stories we pick for the Reading in Common Program. The authors, stories, and characters are change agents; they inspire people to learn more about an issue,” Ruble says.
One coordinated effort that evolved from the Reading in Common Program is a volunteer spring break work trip for 2009-10. The New Student Orientation program has partnered with the Community Service Center to organize a Habitat for Humanity Spring Break Work Trip to Laredo, Texas, near the place where Enrique entered the United States. Ruble explains that this will be an opportunity for students to serve and learn about the community.