Summer reading assignment adds new element to UK's first week

In addition to preparing themselves for college life, the University of Kentucky freshmen who begin arriving on campus Friday had another assignment during the summer.

Each of the more than 5,000 new students and transfers was asked to read James McBride's The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother. The freshmen will break into small groups, led by upperclassmen, faculty and staff, to discuss the book simultaneously at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

That effort, called the Common Reading Experience, adds a new dimension to UK's K Week — nine days of events aimed at welcoming new students and ushering in the start of another school year.

"There will be, hopefully, somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 students participating in the same discussions of the same book at the exact same time all over campus, which is something that is pretty powerful for students to experience," said Michelle Ashcraft, UK's assistant director of New Student and Parent Programs.

About 330 upperclassmen have volunteered to lead the discussions among the small groups — called K Teams — of 15 to 20 freshmen. In addition, 172 faculty and staff members will sit in on group discussions, which will meet in residence halls and classrooms throughout campus.

UK leaders hope that study and debate of The Color of Water will serve as an introduction to the academic environment at UK.

"One of the things we noticed is that a lot of students are breezing through high school without having to do a lot of reading," Ashcraft said. "The new students, when they picked up their copies of the book this summer, got a letter from the president and the provost that stressed that reading and discussion are important on a college campus, that this is an open learning environment and that learning doesn't just take place in the classroom."

The book, McBride's memoirs of growing up the child of a black father and a light-skinned mother who hid her heritage as a Polish Orthodox Jew, also allows students to engage in substantive discussions about diversity of race and backgrounds and common human experiences, said Judy "J.J." Jackson, UK's vice president for institutional diversity.

"What we want to happen as a result of these student discussions is not so much to focus on James McBride as to look at the process of looking at your family and community and the way you were socialized and mixed and mingled," Jackson said.

The book is the foundation for a theme that university programs will reinforce throughout the school year.

For instance, McBride will speak at UK on Oct. 1, and Incognito, a one-man performance that delves into similar issues, is slated for Oct. 31.

Increasing diversity has been a goal of the university, but race relations were somewhat strained last fall when two college-age men hung an effigy of Barack Obama — then a candidate for president — from a tree on campus.

Still, the reading project isn't necessarily aimed at preventing similar incidents, Jackson said.

While most students will read The Color of Water, some probably won't reflect deeply on it until later in life, she said.

"When something like an effigy occurs, there are different reactions to it because people are at different points in their own development," Jackson said.

The Common Reading Experience program cost about $20,000, which mostly went toward the purchase of books and the cost of bringing McBride to campus.

Jaclyn Hawkins, a UK junior and K Crew coordinator, said the project adds a new element to the third year of K Week that has connected freshmen with the upperclassmen group leaders in multiple ways.

"We heard from some of the K Team leaders, and they groaned that not only would the freshmen be having summer reading but they would, too," Hawkins said. "Then we heard a lot from them that, 'I finished the book in one sitting, and it's the first time I've ever done that.'"

In addition to the reading program, the nine-day K Week will feature a large-scale volunteer effort Monday called Fusion, in which thousands of students will go in groups throughout Fayette County to do landscaping or visit nursing homes and shelters.

Other activities feature information sessions, games, entertainment and food.