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Many colleges develop summer reading programs with one or more books for the campus community or their incoming freshmen. These books, chosen by a panel of professors, students, or administrators, are meant to be the common point of reference used to spark discussion and conversation among members of campus.

A freshman taking her first step into the imposing halls of higher education and the intimidating, anonymous crowds of fellow students can take solace in knowing that she has at least one conversation starter up her sleeve. In a school where people from all walks of life are studying different fields and engaged in different interests, a book can be the bridge to understanding these differences or pushing against assumptions. 

The books that colleges have chosen this year tell the stories of growing up as an immigrant, a broken justice system, the plight of poverty, and race in America. They also expose us to hidden struggles and triumphs, the secret to leading a happy life, and the significance of trash.

You don’t need to be a college student to enjoy, ponder, question, or debate the ideas of these 20 books. 

Captions provided by Amazon Editorial Reviews. 

“Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of a Global Citizen” by Firoozeh Dumas

Texas Christian University

In this series of poignant, insightful, and often hilarious anecdotes, Dumas explores the unique challenges and rewards of blending many cultures together as an Iranian American growing up in southern California, from the complexities of multi-family holidays, to the awkwardness of dating in college, to the joys of food.

Buy it here >>

“The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates” by Wes Moore

12 schools, including Albany State University, Florida A&M, and University of Massachusetts Amherst

Two boys with the same name lived in the same decaying city. One went on to be a Rhodes Scholar, decorated combat veteran, White House Fellow, and business leader. The other is serving a life sentence in prison. Here is the story of two young men and the journey of a generation.

Buy it here >>

“Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson

50+ schools, including Auburn, Duke, Northeastern, Ohio State, and UNC Chapel Hill

A powerful true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to fix our broken system of justice — from one of the most brilliant and influential lawyers of our time.

Buy it here >>

“A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir” by Lev Golinkin

Boston College, Texas A&M International University

Lev Golinkin’s memoir is the vivid, darkly comic, and poignant story of a young boy in the confusing and often chilling final decade of the Soviet Union. It’s also the story of Lev Golinkin, the American man who finally confronts his buried past by returning to Austria and Eastern Europe to track down the strangers who made his escape possible and say thank you.

Buy it here >>

“Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Matthew Desmond

5 schools, including Southern Methodist University and Portland Community College

It’s the rare writer who can capture a social ill with a clear-eyed, nonjudgmental tone and still allow the messiness of real people its due. Matthew Desmond does just that with “Evicted” as he explores the stories of tenants and landlords in the poorest areas of Milwaukee during 2008 and 2009.

Buy it here >>

“Between The World And Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

20+ schools, including Amherst College, Mount Holyoke College, NYU, UCLA, and University of Oregon

In a series of essays, written as a letter to his son, Coates confronts the notion of race in America and how it has shaped American history, many times at the cost of black bodies and lives. 

Buy it here >>

“Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash” by Edward Humes

Purdue University Northwest Calumet, University of Texas at Tyler

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist takes readers on a tour of America’s biggest export, its most prodigious product, and its greatest legacy: trash. Humes investigates trash — what’s in it; how much we pay for it; how we manage to create so much of it; and how some families, communities, and even nations are finding a way back from waste to discover a new kind of prosperity.

Buy it here >>

“Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” by Margot Lee Shetterly

8 schools, including College of William and Mary, West Virginia University, and University of Houston

“Hidden Figures” follows the interwoven accounts four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades as they faced challenges, forged alliances, and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country’s future.

Buy it here >>

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon

60+ schools, including Pace University, Occidental College, University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and CSU Northridge

This improbable story of an autistic 15-year-old boy Christopher’s quest to investigate the suspicious death of a neighborhood dog makes for one of the most captivating, unusual, and widely heralded novels in recent years.

Buy it here >>

“Forked: A New Standard for American Dining” by Saru Jayaraman

UC Berkeley

A new class of chefs and restaurateurs is working to foster sustainability in their food and their employees. “Forked” offers an insider’s view of the highest- and lowest-scoring restaurants for worker pay and benefits in each sector of the restaurant industry, and with it, a new way of thinking about how and where we eat.

Buy it here >>

“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

9 schools, including University of Alaska, Anchorage, Menlo College, and Hiram College

In the Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States, far-right Schlafly/Falwell-type ideals have been carried to extremes in the monotheocratic government. The resulting society is a feminist’s nightmare.

Buy it here >>

“Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life” by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans

Northern Arizona University

This book shows us how design thinking can help us create a life that is both meaningful and fulfilling, regardless of who or where we are, what we do or have done for a living, or how young or old we are.

Buy it here >>

“Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward

Stanford University

Set in the twelve days immediately surrounding the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, “Salvage the Bones” is at its heart the story of four motherless children, trying to protect their home and one another against unimaginable disruption.

Buy it here >>

“Wine to Water: How One Man Saved Himself While Trying to Save the World” by Doc Hendley

Hartwick College

In 2004, Hendley, a small-town bartender, launched a series of wine-tasting events to raise awareness about the world’s freshwater crisis. He initially planned to donate proceeds through traditional channels, but instead traveled to Darfur, where he witnessed a government-sponsored genocide intensified by a surprising weapon — the lack of clean water.

Buy it here >>

“So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” by Jon Ronson

Fashion Institute of Technology, Henderson State University, and Ramapo College of New Jersey

This book is Ronson’s tour through a not-necessarily-brave new world where faceless commenters wield the power to destroy lives and careers, where the punishments often outweigh the crimes, and where there is no self-control and (ironically) no consequences.

Buy it here >>

“Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen” by Christopher McDougall

5 schools, including Appalachian State University, Ripon College, and Queens University of Charlotte

With a sharp wit and wild exuberance, McDougall takes us from the high-tech science labs at Harvard to the sun-baked valleys and freezing peaks across North America, where ever-growing numbers of ultrarunners are pushing their bodies to the limit, and, finally, to the climactic race in the Copper Canyons.

Buy it here >>

“Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family” by Amy Ellis Nutt

Nassau Community College, Arcadia University

The inspiring true story of a transgender girl, her identical twin brother, and an ordinary American family’s extraordinary journey to understand, nurture, and celebrate the uniqueness in us all, from the Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter for The Washington Post.

Buy it here >>

“Girl in Translation” by Jean Kwok

CSU Sacramento

A resolute yet naïve Chinese girl confronts poverty and culture shock with equal zeal when she and her mother immigrate to Brooklyn in Kwok’s affecting coming-of-age debut.

Buy it here >>

“Make Your Home Among Strangers” by Jennine Capó Crucet

10 schools, including Wake Forest University, George Mason University, and UNC Asheville

When Lizet, the daughter of Cuban immigrants and the first in her family to graduate from high school, secretly applies and is accepted to an ultra-elite college, her parents are furious at her decision to leave Miami. Pulled between life at college and the needs of those she loves, Lizet is faced with difficult decisions that will change her life forever.

Buy it here >>

“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi

Utah State University

A deeply humane, inspiring memoir by a young neurosurgeon faced with a terminal diagnosis that attempts to answer the questions: given that all organisms die, what makes a meaningful life? And, as a doctor, what does it mean to hold mortal — and moral — responsibility for another person’s identity?

Buy it here >>

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