Colleges create common freshmen experience through books

Freshmen at Georgia State University flipped through their copies of the book "Outcasts United" during a recent English class.

Students read the book over the summer and have attended lectures and discussions on campus concerning the true story about a group of refugee soccer players living in Clarkston. Author Warren St. John has visited the Atlanta campus. English professors and students are using the book to discuss language, culture and other topics.

"Not all the kids in the book spoke the same language, but they still found a way to communicate," freshman Chris Nickel said. "Even though they were all different they found a way to create their own community. It sort of reminds you of college. We're not refugees but we all came from different places, and now we're creating our own community."

This is Georgia State's first year using the common reading program, which guarantees that freshmen have a shared intellectual experience to discuss during fall semester. Summer reading assignments have become popular over the past decade and are used at Agnes Scott College, Clark Atlanta University, Georgia College & State University, Kennesaw State University and other institutions.

Agnes Scott, a private women's college in Decatur, has used the program since 1960 when officials assigned "The Stranger" by Albert Camus.

Agnes Scott, Kennesaw State and Georgia State all chose the same book this year. The work, college officials said, has a local connection but also touches on immigration, global politics and cultural conflict.

"At first I thought they wanted us to read it because the story takes place close to here," Georgia State freshman Jonathan Daniel said. "But then after I read it, I got that they wanted us thinking about and learning how to appreciate diversity. It gets you thinking about yourself as part of this global environment."

The book is also used by Johnson State College in Vermont, Middle Tennessee State University, University of Alabama at Birmingham and Utah State University, according to a list compiled by the National Association of Scholars. Sixty of the 290 colleges using common readers this fall selected works that tackle issues related to multiculturalism, immigration or racism, according to the nonprofit watchdog group that was formed in 1985 to challenge politically correct education policies.

Most of the assigned books were published in the past decade and are titles that could be found in many community book clubs, the association noted in a report released in June. The group questioned whether universities should assign established classics that capture the intellectual heft students will face in college.

Kennesaw State started its program in 2004 and selects nonfiction because students typically don't choose those books on their own, said Keisha Hoerrner, a communications professor who is chairwoman of the university's first-year programs. The university picked books that are readable, less than 300 pages and written by an author who can visit the campus, she said.

"If you put ‘War and Peace' in front of them it will just confirm the negative views many of them have about reading," she said. "That doesn't happen with the books we picked. They really get into the books and it generates great interest in reading. We need to pick books that an 18-year-old would want to read from start to finish."

While some freshmen at Georgia State found the book repetitive at times, students said they enjoyed it.

"It wasn't a hard or long book to read but it was good book that got you really thinking about what's happening around us," Courtnee Hood said. "It makes you realize how much the world and this country and even our city is changing. College is going to get us ready for this new world."

Common Books

During the past decade, more colleges have assigned incoming freshmen books to read before they arrive for fall semester. These assignment provide students with a shared learning experience they can discuss on campus. Here are the works assigned by some Georgia colleges:

  • Agnes Scott College -- "Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town" by Warren St. John.
  • Clark Atlanta University -- "Perfect Peace" by Daniel Black.
  • Georgia College & State University -- "Reasons to Believe" by John Marks.
  • Georgia State University -- "Outcasts United."
  • Kennesaw State University -- "Outcasts United."

Source: Area colleges