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Here’s What First-Year College Students Are Reading This Summer

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA
Only two Pittsburgh universities send book to students to read during the summer, ahead of the school year.

Many colleges send incoming students a copy of the same book, or common reader, in the summer. The idea is to give students a shared experience before coming to campus.

Some schools send books to just freshmen and incorporate the themes of the text into orientation. Others expect the entire campus to read the book.

In Pittsburgh, only two universities have common read programs.

A report from the National Association of Scholars found that three-quarters of 348 schools that have a common read program use books published between 2010 and present. The report found that just three books made up 15 percent of the common reading assignments last year. The report identified the books as progressive, parochial and intellectually unchallenging. But, universities argue that it gives students a common topic to discuss and debate.

NPR also identified popular titles in universities across the country.

Carnegie Mellon University

Ten years ago, Carnegie Mellon University Computer Science professor Randy Pausch gave a lecture titled, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” just a month after he was told his pancreatic cancer was terminal.

Credit Hyperion Books
Hyperion Books
Since it was published in 2008, all incoming Carnegie Mellon University freshman have been required to read "The Last Lecture."

At the end of the lecture, he reveals the lessons he discussed were actually what he wanted his three children to know. The lecture was re-formatted and became a New York Times best seller in 2008. Pausch died that spring. CMU’s Director of Orientation Anne Witchner said the university has sent a copy of the book to first-year students every year since. Students are asked to discuss the book during orientation.

“Now we’re re-introducing Randy to people because these kids weren’t even 8 years old when he passed away," she said. "So they might not know about him."

Carlow University

Carlow University’s program includes the entire campus. A committee chooses a different text every year that all students are asked to read.

This year’s selection is, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a nonfiction account of the cancer cell line taken from Lacks without consent in 1951. The tissue has since been used in dozens of research studies. Political science assistant professor Bill Schweers said the book covers issues from biomedical ethics to biology to theology.

“It has to talk about, I think, issues that students can relate to no matter what their major may be. But, we also like to pick a text that is linked to Carlow’s mission which is one of social justice,” he said.

Credit Penguin and Random House Publishing
All Carlow University students are expected to read "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" over the summer.

In the past, Carlow professors have given lectures on the text and the university has brought in the common reader’s author. Last year, Carlow chose “How does it feel to be a problem? Being young and Arab in America,” by Moustafa Bayoumi. The author was invited to speak at the campus convocation.


Chatham compiles a summer reading list that broadly relates to its curriculum. An all-campus author is chosen once the school year begins. Last year’s selection was “One Native Life,” by Richard Wagamese.

The University of Pittsburgh, Point Park University and Duquesne University do not have a common reading program. 

Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.