Read to Connect

Through the College Reading Experience, universities are using novels to connect their underclassmen and transfer students as well as help them adapt to college life.

By Kara Mercer, Northern Illinois University


Storytelling has always been present in our culture. It’s how we communicate.

A powerful TED talk highlights the dangers of hearing only a single story about a person, country or situation. College is a place that unifies diverse stories and promotes storytelling to create open-mindedness and prevent stereotypes. Some universities have found a way for incoming college students to share stories dealing with world issues through a Common Reading Experience (CRE).

A CRE typically includes a book with a theme applicable to beginning college. The goals of bringing new college students together and getting them to think critically about various world problems, like poverty or religion, tend to be the same for all participating universities. Colleges find ways to incorporate the reading into seminars, student organizations, group projects and even reach out to authors to hold Q&A sessions and discussions.

Many universities require a CRE for first, second-year and transfer students before they start their first college courses, and some of those schools give the books out for free. Students are placed in small groups to discuss the chosen book.

Some colleges integrate the books into University 101 courses, meaning students can receive credit for the reading, while other schools make the book a theme for the entire year for first-year students or the book targets a specific major and is circulated through classes. No matter what hat the common reading experience wears, here’s why it’s beneficial to seek them out and participate in the corresponding events.

The CRE-program books are chosen for the college experience, and the topics are meant to promote discussion. Many undergrads going to a college away from their hometowns are in for a culture shock, but the CRE gives students a chance to get used to hearing other opinions and get involved in critical thinking in higher-level education.

Open New Doors with the Common Reading Experience

image via ULifeline

When I was a freshman, I read “Acts of Faith” by Eboo Patel for my UNIV 101 class. It was a one-credit-hour class in the same building I lived in, so I took it for the convenience.

The book was the most enjoyable part of the class. I wasn’t into the scavenger hunts or reading assignments from the university “textbook” with the history of NIU. Instead, I wanted to learn about something real, not that our college had an honorary goose student or that our major road was named after the wife of the inventor of barbed wire.

The story Patel told about his youth and the struggle with his culture taught me a lot about what different faiths meant to different people. Patel founded the Interfaith Youth Core, which is an organization bringing together young people, including college students, of different religious and non-religious backgrounds.

I wanted to learn about other faiths, and I was able to do so through the reading and the events my university planned. I attended a Q&A for a paper in the class, listened to questions asked by my peers and heard even more stories related to the one told in the book.

Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, which discusses social justice and poverty, was the book selected for Northern Illinois University’s 2015-2017 CRE. The University of South Florida chose a book with similar themes, called “The Other Wes Moore” by Wes Moore. Fort Lewis College in Durango Colorado chose “Apocalyptic Planet” by Craig Childs, which explores the future of the planet in terms of science and humans’ relationship with nature. By reading memoirs and other forms of creative nonfiction, students can develop a better understanding of other people’s stories and how they relate to current events.

CRE events are a good way to connect with others. “Common” is in the name, so it makes sense that universities would put together group discussions, lectures and other events that bring together readers. Many people from all over this country, and other countries, come together on one campus to learn. What better way to unite individuals in different majors than through a book?

Open New Doors with the Common Reading Experience

Image via LitFire Publishing Blog

Universities, like the University of Kentucky and Albion College, hand out CRE books at orientation, and then the week before classes start, they hold group discussions about the book. Planning the discussions for the week before classes start can help students acclimate to campus and meet new people. Even if undergraduates are not interested in the book or participating in group discussion, students can bond with those who feel the same way as they do and make new friends.

NIU has a student organization for those who want to collaborate with other organizations on campus to promote the CRE. By pursuing a CRE program, students learn to work on a team, acquire valuable skills relevant to working and have their voices heard on campus. Some colleges hold meet-and-greets with the author of the book, which creates a chance for students to discuss the themes and topics they’ve been learning about with the person who shared their story, as well as an opportunity to create networks through the authors.

College is a place to learn new things and think differently about the world. The Common Reading Experience is organized for college students to help adjust to university life and the various world issues that may come up in conversation. Students may also share a similar story to the authors’. Seeking knowledge is what college is all about, which is why there should be more CRE programs for upperclassmen as well.

Find out if the university you plan on attending has a CRE program, and look for other opportunities to get involved. Even if your university doesn’t have any kind of CRE initiative, suggest some to an administrator or find other colleges’ books; it’s either that, or risk only knowing your story.