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UW picks book for all new students to read

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The University of Washington will ask each incoming student to read the same work of non-fiction -- what it's calling the "Common Book" -- before they come to campus next fall.

A committee last month chose Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder's "Mountains Beyond Mountains," which tells the story of Dr. Paul Farmer and his work in global health.

Following the lead of other universities, the UW is looking to give new students a common experience and engage them intellectually, said Christine Ingebritsen, acting dean of undergraduate education. The committee that selected the book is now brainstorming how to bring it to life on campus.

"It's a little bit revolutionary for the University of Washington," Ingebritsen said. "We have been a campus that has been a large urban research university and now we're saying we want to have more community on this campus, and we want to do things more in a like-minded way."

The introduction of the Common Book comes as the university is looking at ways to improve the undergraduate experience.

Ingebritsen got the idea from a colleague at Butler University, which had done something similar.

Starting last summer, a UW committee met regularly to review books and discuss what students should get out of the experience. Last month, they selected Kidder's 2003 book, which runs 300-plus pages.

It's a story about a person who makes a difference in the world, Ingebritsen noted. The issues raised in the book are ones that can be tied into the university, which is looking at creating a global health program.

The book is also a good writing sample and one that most students probably did not read in high school, she said.

Other finalists considered by the Common Book committee:

"Bold Spirit: Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America" by Linda Lawrence Hunt, a true story of two women from Spokane who walked across the country in 1896.

"The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini, a novel of an Afghan immigrant's troubled path to a new life in the United States and his journey back to his war-torn homeland.

"America Is in the Heart" by Carols Bulosan, the autobiography of a Filipino poet.

The university is hoping to create a buzz around the book so students will be compelled to read it during their summer break. Some of the committee's ideas include a film series, community dinners and campus appearances by Kidder and Farmer, Ingebritsen said.

"It's going to have to be implemented in a way that students see that it's legitimate to what they're doing at the UW," student body president Lee Dunbar said. "And that it's worth their time."

"If done in a way that reaches out to students, it's a good way to build community," said UW junior Hala Dillsi, who is on the Common Book committee.

The university, which will provide the book to incoming freshmen and transfer students at orientation, expects to spend between $30,000 and $50,000 on them, Ingebritsen said.

She expects the university to pick a new Common Book every year.

Other universities have been doing this for years.

The University of North Carolina began asking its incoming students to read the same book in 1999. The school generated controversy in 2002 when it selected "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations" as its freshman pick a year after 9/11.

UNC's current freshman class read "Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story" by Timothy Tyson.

The university asks new students to attend a two-hour discussion of the book the day before classes begin, said Judy Deshotels, who oversees the reading program. About half of incoming students typically participate.

"This is a big trend now," said Wendy Katkin, director of The Reinvention Center at Stony Brook University in New York.

"The idea is to give students a common experience."

"Mountains Beyond Mountains" has already been taught at the UW. Professor Jonathan Mayer uses it in his class for public health majors.

"It's not so much the book itself that is the significant issue, but what the book can start that is important," Mayer wrote in an e-mail.

"The book is a steppingstone to a broad-ranging appreciation of hugely challenging global issues that demand the most creative solutions and the most creative and committed people. ...

"I have seen this book, and Paul Farmer's writings, change careers and change lives."

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