This year, UNLV is expanding the “Common Read,” a program for first-year students whose purpose is precisely as its title promises: creating a shared experience around a book.
UNLV’s Common Read kicked off over the summer with first-year students all receiving free e-book copies of Tell Me Who You Are: Sharing Our Stories of Race, Culture & Identity. At orientation events, activities were built around the book’s multicultural themes.
Its authors, Priya Vulchi and Winona Guo, are the keynote speakers at UNLV Creates, the annual academic welcoming ceremony, on Aug. 26 at the Thomas & Mack Center. Afterwards, they’ll conduct a book signing.
Then the discussions move into the classroom, through select first-year seminar classes and in some introductory writing classes. Instructors across campus are encouraged to incorporate activities and discussions around the book and its exploration of our society. Events outside the classroom will keep the discussions going throughout the semester.
But what does having thousands of students from all manner of majors read the same book do for them?
Student Success Starts with Campus Connections
Encouraging connectivity between students, easing their transition into college life, and even turning them into peer-mentors for each other are among the intended results of Common Read.
“We know that having new students engaged in a shared intellectual experience as they head into their first year has a positive impact on social and academic integration into the university,” says Laurel Pritchard, UNLV’s vice provost for undergraduate education. “It improves their retention and persistence at the university, and we felt it was something that would help move us closer to our Top Tier 2.0 Goals.”
Karen Violanti, executive director of UNLV’s First Year Success Program, notes that among higher education experts, “the Common Read is considered a high-impact experience for first-year students.”
Unlike standard required reading assignments that loosely link students’ knowledge of a theme in short bursts, the Common Read will spread the book’s concept through multiple academic avenues throughout the year. “UNLV had common read experiences in the past, but this is the first effort to expand it to be more university-wide,” Violanti says. “It’s bridging across the entire first-year experience.”
Exploring Diverse Voices on a Diverse Campus
Volanti notes the book selection was purposeful for UNLV’s student body. “We are one of the most diverse universities in the entire nation, which is such a point of pride for us,” she says. “We wanted our Common Read to be a reflection of students not only being able to share their own stories, of what they’re bringing to the UNLV community, but also being aware of the stories of others as they come into the community.”
Tell Me Who You Are is a collection of short stories revolving around the female authors who, during a gap-year between high school and college, traveled throughout America. They interviewed 150 people of different ethnicities, genders, races, religions, regions, and cultures.
“We were particularly interested in having a book that would help students explore their own identities and other identities they might encounter at a diverse institution such as ours,” Pritchard says.
The book also encourages critical inquiry of the reader’s educational experiences as they enter college. “These two women had recently graduated from high school and were interested in how their education had prepared them — or not prepared them — to have conversations with others about race and other types of identity. The individual stories are fairly short and digestible. It’s not like reading War and Peace. It is really approachable.”
Among the notable stories in the book: One woman travels with a largely African-American softball team to a city once home to the Ku Klux Klan and fears spending the night in a local hotel; a Creole woman in New Orleans opens up about the impact of the secrecy practiced by light-skinned African-Americans who decide to pass for Caucasian; and a Japanese-American woman talks about her family’s internment during World War II, in what is now acknowledged as a shameful chapter of American history.
Incoming graphic design and media major Kevin Zhou has already tackled the book. The Las Vegas native shared his own story at an orientation event last May, and again earlier this month, videotaped it for UNLV Creates.
“I think it’s a good way to connect people from across the world who are of different origins because some people can find some similar things and also things that aren’t so similar, and apply them to your life.”
Through summer orientation events, Violanti notes that incoming students have been sharing their stories in a multitude of ways, and there has been a common response: “You could hear a pin drop in the room when they shared their experiences,” Violanti says.
“If they are coming to events, we have a Common Read theme attached. At our ice cream social, we asked students, what’s one word that describes your story? Then there was a 15-minute conversation, drawing on the whiteboard. Social media will be another avenue to post stories. Wherever and however you would like to engage, we would love to talk to you about this.”
Tell Me Who We Are will crop up in events such as UNLV’s Nov. 9 “First-Generation Celebration Breakfast,” spotlighting the experiences of first-generation students.
And given how politically and socially polarized American society has become in recent years, the inclusion of such a book seems well-timed. “Any catalyst to having these conversations, especially now in the society we’re living in post-pandemic, is great,” Violanti says.
“Everything is so different now. In this time that’s a little more unstable, I think opportunities like this will offer people space to think about their own journey into college and give space to other people to have this conversation.”
Adds Pritchard: “There’s always going to be some level of tension or discomfort when talking about anything people tend to be polarized about, but we do, as a minority-serving institution, have a responsibility to engage students in those conversations.”
It comes down to a simple statement, and a simple question:
“This is who I am. Who are you?”