Nov 25th, 2013 @ 10:51 am | Author: Dr. Steve Shirley
Valley City State University began a new initiative this academic year involving the entire freshmen class. This initiative, the Common Reading Program, this year focused on the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Common reading programs have become popular on college campuses, especially with new students and incoming freshmen. These programs are often linked to first-year experience initiatives with goals including introducing new students to the scholarly process in a university setting, and engaging students, faculty, and staff in learning together with a common text. VCSU’s stated mission for this common reading program is “to promote lifelong learning by engaging students, faculty, staff, and community members in an interdisciplinary scholarly discourse centered upon themes from a selected literary work.”

All VCSU freshmen who are part of this year’s incoming class were given the Henrietta Lacks book last spring and summer when they were on campus for the freshmen orientation and advising sessions. This book has been used on college campuses across the nation and has proven to be a popular selection at VCSU. It is a fascinating book raising some important questions about an intriguing subject in American history.

A campus committee selected the book last spring from among a number of other options. It is based on the life of Henrietta Lacks and the impact of cells that were taken from her body, known as HeLa cells (an abbreviation of her first and last name). These “immortal” cells were taken from Henrietta, without her knowledge, in 1951, and the cell line continues being used to this day. Over the course of time, these cells have been critically important in scientific and medical developments, including the polio vaccine. The book explores some important subjects including biomedical ethics, race, informed consent, mental health, discrimination, and the proper use of medical research and data. The book also has a direct connection to a number of general education courses including biology, sociology, history, and economics.

The purpose of this common reading activity has been to engage the entire freshman class in one topic that can be explored in a cross-disciplinary matter through a multitude of classes and various academic disciplines. VCSU faculty across campus have worked this fall to incorporate the book and its various subject matters into their curriculum, activities, papers, and class projects. In addition to the in-class exercises that have been developed for our students, there have also been several other events on campus associated with the book including trivia games, arts-based competitions, essay contests, a campus debate, a film showing, scholarship awards, and social media activities.

Plans are already underway for the Fall 2014 Common Reading Program at VCSU, and we are currently deliberating among options to choose next year’s book. I would encourage you to learn more about Henrietta Lacks, HeLa cells, and strongly suggest reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.