The Common Read is a student’s first college reading assignment, and books are distributed at June Orientation. As part of new student arrival in August, all first-year students join their classmates, upperclass students, faculty, and staff in an engaging discussion of the book. Throughout the year, various programs and events carry through themes emerging from the reading.
If you’re a continuing student, faculty member, staff member, or community member who is interested in leading a discussion of this year’s Common Read, please sign up as a facilitator!
Tara Westover grew up in a survivalist community in Idaho, isolated from modern medicine, homeschooled within the narrow confines of her parents’ beliefs, and working as a midwife and junkyard assistant from a young age. Westover tutored herself in secret to gain admission to Brigham Young University, against her family’s wishes. Her studies eventually took her to Harvard and Cambridge. All the while, Westover struggled to reconcile her upbringing with life beyond her family’s limited worldview.
This memoir addresses many issues of importance to First-in-Family college students, as well as themes of culture shock, personal growth, and grit. All students will recognize elements of their own experience as they enter college and encounter people who are different from themselves.
2018–2019 Common Read | Dear Evan Hansen by Steven Levenson; Soundtrack by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Dear Evan Hansen is a critically acclaimed 2015 stage musical with a very popular soundtrack that features a high school student, Evan Hansen, who has severe social anxiety and struggles to make friends. Evan’s therapist recommends that he write letters to himself detailing what will be good about each day. After the death of one his classmates, who is found with one of Evan’s letters, Evan crafts an intricate, fabricated story about his relationship with his dead classmate. This lie brings him closer to his classmate’s family and allows Evan to develop a sense of self-purpose and worth. However, the lie spins out of control, and Evan must face the consequences of his actions.
The musical was partially inspired by composer Benj Pasek’s memory of high school and the death of a student. “This is a show about people who feel sort of alone,” [Justin] Paul says. Adds Pasek: “It’s about how the person you project to the world is not the real you.”
UMW created a video of UMW community members singing “You Will be Found” from the Dear Evan Hansen soundtrack:
2017–2018 Common Read | Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
Hidden Figures “recovers the history of these pioneering women and situates it in the intersection of the defining movements of the American century: the Cold War, the Space Race, the Civil Rights movement and the quest for gender equality.”
“We all know what a scientist looks like: a wild-eyed person in a white lab coat and utilitarian eyeglasses, wearing a pocket protector and holding a test tube. Mostly male. Usually white. Even Google, our hive mind, confirms the prevailing view. Just do an image search for the word “scientist”. . . . As a child, however, I knew so many African-Americans working in science, math and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did. . . . These women were nearly all top graduates of historically black colleges such as Hampton Institute, Virginia State and Wilberforce University. Though they did the same work as the white women hired at the time, they were cloistered away in their own segregated office in the West Area of the Langley campus– thus the moniker, the West Computers. But despite the hardships of working under Virginia’s Jim Crow laws, these women went on to make significant contributions to aeronautics, astronautics, and America’s victory over the Soviet Union in the Space Race.”
Margot Lee Shetterly’s work in Hidden Figures has been critically acclaimed and is the foundation of the Hidden Figures major motion picture. She is a native of Hamption, VA, and her scholarship reminds us that there are hidden figures all around that are our responsibility to bring to light.
2016–2017 Common Read | Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle by Kristen Green
This book, written by one of UMW’s own alumna, explores a Virginia county’s reaction to the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling.
“In the wake of the Supreme Court’s unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision, Virginia’s Prince Edward County refused to obey the law. Rather than desegregate, the county closed its public schools, locking and chaining the doors. The community’s white leaders quickly established a private academy, commandeering supplies from the shuttered public schools to use in their all-white classrooms. Meanwhile, black parents had few options: keep their kids at home, move across county lines, or send them to live with relatives in other states. For five years, the schools remained closed.
Kristen Green, a longtime newspaper reporter, grew up in Farmville and attended Prince Edward Academy, which did not admit black students until 1986. In her journey to uncover what happened in her hometown before she was born, Green tells the stories of families divided by the school closures and of 1,700 black children denied an education. As she peels back the layers of this haunting period in our nation’s past, her own family’s role—no less complex and painful—comes to light.”
2015–2016 Common Read | The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was chosen as the book for UMW’s pilot Common Read. The following synopsis and further information can be found on Skloot’s website.
“Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance.
Soon to be made into an HBO movie by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball, this New York Times bestseller takes readers on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers filled with HeLa cells, from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia, to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew. It’s a story inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we’re made of.”