What College Freshmen Are Reading : NPR Ed Book programs for freshmen — or a whole campus or community — are meant to spark discussion and unity. This year's picks at nine U.S. schools range from memoirs to political advice from 64 B.C.
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What College Freshmen Are Reading

Lots of colleges have these reading programs; some are just for freshmen, and for others, the entire campus or local community joins in. The idea is that books will stir discussion — and unite a class or campus around a topic. Photo Illustration by Ruby Wallau/NPR hide caption

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Photo Illustration by Ruby Wallau/NPR

Lots of colleges have these reading programs; some are just for freshmen, and for others, the entire campus or local community joins in. The idea is that books will stir discussion — and unite a class or campus around a topic.

Photo Illustration by Ruby Wallau/NPR

I can remember the weeks before starting school at Skidmore College, furiously trying to finish Gregory Howard Williams' memoir, Life on the Color Line. The book had been assigned as our freshman reading assignment — part of the First-Year Experience at the liberal arts school in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Four years later, Williams spoke at our graduation.

Lots of colleges have these reading programs; some are just for freshmen, and for others, the entire campus or local community joins in. The idea is that books will stir discussion — and unite a class or campus around a topic. Some schools even have the author speak on campus, or weave the book's content into the year's curriculum.

The programs are prevalent around the country, for schools big and small. Earlier this year, the National Association of Scholars looked at more than 350 colleges and universities and the books they assigned.

The books are often selected by the campus — by professors, current students and the incoming class, or a combination. They tend to be contemporary reads: NAS's 2016 report found that most of the books assigned were published after 2010. In its sixth year, the report continues to be frustrated with the content of these programs. Among its key findings: "The list of readings continues to be dominated by recent, trendy, and intellectually unchallenging books."

In recent years, schools have featured books like Wes Moore's The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Dave Eggers' The Circle.

This year's selections cover a range of topics; many are nonfiction, and several focus on climate change, race and other social issues.

Here are some reading assignments for first-year students at a few schools, from a community college in Michigan to a liberal arts campus in Massachusetts.

Orphan Train

First-year students at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Ky., will be reading Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline.

The book tells the story of so-called orphan trains that carried unclaimed children across the U.S.

The author will deliver a lecture on UK's campus in October.

A Tale for the Time Being

The class of 2020 at Smith College, a liberal arts school in Northampton, Mass., will be reading Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being.

The novel weaves the stories of a young teen in Tokyo with that of a woman across the Pacific Ocean and plays with ideas of time and intermingled fate.

The author graduated from Smith in 1980, and is now an English professor at the college.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

The entire community at San Jose State University in San Jose, Calif., is encouraged to read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.

The memoir follows Stevenson's life working as an attorney representing poor clients in the South. The main story follows a client, Walter McMillian, on death row for killing a young white woman in Monroe­ville, Ala. The book is a personal look at the nation's justice system.

Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit

This fall, first-year students at Lansing Community College in Lansing, Mich., will be required to read Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook.

Estabrook writes about Florida's mass-produced "tasteless" tomato and what that represents in agriculture today.

The commuter campus in Michigan will host a number of events throughout the semester including a discussion about big and small agriculture, and a taste testing of different tomato varieties.

How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians

First-year horned frogs at Texas Christian University, a private school in Fort Worth, Texas, will be reading How to Win an Election by Quintus Tullius Cicero.

Originally written in 64 B.C. as a practical guide for Cicero's brother Marcus, How to Win an Election was republished in 2012.

For obvious reasons, Quintus Tullius Cicero will not be speaking on campus.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban

All Providence College freshmen and transfer students are reading I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb.

The memoir tells the story of Yousafzai's life: Her father's struggles to start a school, her early blogging about education, the point-blank shot we all know about, and her triumphant aftermath and recovery.

Yousafzai spoke in Rhode Island's capital this summer.

Handbook for an Unpredictable Life

Queensborough Community College, a college of the City University of New York, in Bayside, Queens, will be reading Handbook for an Unpredictable Life by Rosie Perez.

Actress Rosie Perez, who went to high school in Queens, shares her story in this memoir about her tumultuous childhood, complicated family life and challenges working in show business.

The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas

The community at Grand Valley State University, a public university in Allendale, Mich., is invited to read Anand Giridharadas' The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas.

The nonfiction work tells the story of two men — their lives forever entwined after one shoots the other in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The university has several events planned throughout the academic year.

Loving Day

Freshman at Bucknell University, a liberal arts school in Lewisburg, Pa., will receive copies of Loving Day by Mat Johnson.

The fictional tale is set in Philadelphia when the narrator moves back to a mansion he inherited from his father. The book touches on race and identity — the main character's father was white; his mother was black. He meets his daughter he didn't know he had, and together they try to understand what home means.

A version of this story was published on NPR Ed in July 2015.

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