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Common Reading Program Instills Culture of Learning Among Freshmen

This year, AUC introduced the One Book, One Conversation, One Community pilot common reading program, where first-year students were all asked to read the first chapter of the novel Zeitoun as part of the freshman program orientation. After receiving feedback about the pilot phase, the University is preparing to officially launch the common reading program this upcoming semester with candygirl (AUC Press, 2012), authored by Egyptian Ambassador M.M. Tawfik. "I believe the common reading program is really important for AUC's incoming freshmen because it promotes cultural awareness for new students and incorporates an illustration of the liberal arts educational system they are about to experience,” said Abdelaziz Mahmoud Ahmed, a freshman intending to major in petroleum engineering, and the first-place winner of the essay contest organized by the program on the novel Zeitoun. “When we as students read a chapter from a book that covers an interesting topic, it triggers an attitude where we would try to investigate in order to learn more.” According to a program overview prepared by Doris Jones, senior instructor at the Department of Rhetoric and Composition, common reading programs have been incorporated into several first-year experience programs in colleges and universities in the United States to introduce incoming students to the academic environment and help inculcate a culture of reading. She hopes to apply these same goals at AUC. “It is increasingly apparent from classroom experience and from survey results produced by the Office of Data Analytics and Institutional Research that reading habits among AUC students are disconcertingly low,” explained Jones. “[The common reading program is one way] we can increase the reading levels of our students while also addressing their attitudes about reading and other literary cultural activities.” This is why incoming freshmen were asked to read the first chapter of the novel Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, a nonfiction account of a Syrian-American who experienced Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana. “Zeitoun is a story of forgiveness and celebration that offers a number of appealing perspectives to our students, while also allowing them to experience cultures beyond their own,” explained Jones. And students appreciated the new perspectives that Zeitoun offered. “The book Zeitoun is a really interesting text where Eggers utilizes literary devices impeccably in order to deliver his message to the intended audience,” said Ahmed. “A book like Zeitoun effectively grasps a sensitive topic like terrorism to appeal to us emotionally and make us, as students, strive to learn more about the misconceptions relating to our culture. Our cultural identity and social conditioning are two really vital aspects that play a tremendous role in elucidating who we are, and that's why I really liked this book.” Beyond inculcating a culture of reading, the common reading program also aims to bring the University community closer together by incorporating discussions about the book across disciplines. In the program overview, Jones writes, “[A goal of the common reading program is to] strengthen the academic community and create opportunities for intellectual engagement and in-depth learning through carefully selected common readings that pose multiple or differing perspectives and questions, followed by theme-oriented academic and cocurricular activities throughout the year.” One of the activities that brought the University community together with the selected book was through an essay contest organized by the Academy of Liberal Arts and the First-Year Experience program. Abdelaziz Mahmoud Ahmed, Aseel Yehia Azab and Begad Magdi Dawaba — all first-year students — won first, second and third place respectively in the contest. “The winning essay was cogent and one that reflects the mission statement of AUC because of its emphasis on humanitarianism,” Jones explained. Looking to the future, Jones received feedback from students about its pilot program, and the most common suggestion was to select a book that had more cultural relevance. “Common reading program books by their nature should have cultural relevance, so to select a book for next semester, we considered hundreds of titles including books written by Egyptian authors,” Jones said. With candygirl as the selected book for next year, Jones is looking forward to the potential activities that can be planned around it. “There are so many possibilities that come from the title chosen,” Jones said. “And it’s not just primarily to integrate book discussions into classes. We want to see everyone reading it.”