Alumni Embrace the New Student Reading Project
By Scott Pesner '87
Each of the past eight summers, incoming Cornell students have received a gift in the mail from the University—a chance to prepare for a new experience, have something to discuss with dormmates, and kick-start their academic careers. Since 2001, the New Student Reading Project has featured classics such as Frankenstein and The Great Gatsby and contemporary fiction like Nadine Gordimer 's The Pickup. When they arrive on campus, the members of the incoming freshman class—as well as transfers—gather in Barton Hall for an academic discussion and then break into smaller groups to discuss the essays they have written about the assigned book.
But for the past few years, it hasn't been only Cornell students who've participated in the project—alumni have also come on board. Grads from more than thirty classes were mailed this year's book, Gary Wills's Pulitzer Prizewinning Lincoln at Gettysburg, as a thank-you for paying class dues, a post-reunion gift, or a way to stimulate class gatherings. In all, more than 20,000 alumni received it. "We've made this a multi-year project," says Jason McGill '88, BArch '89, who has overseen the program for his class for the past few years. "We've had a great expression of interest from classmates and generated robust conversations. Classmates have really enjoyed connecting with faculty members, and the discussions have ranged over everything from the books themselves to social issues raised by the readings."
The popularity of distributing the book to alumni through their classes has spilled over to local Cornell clubs and alumni associations, who now make it an annual fall event. In September, history and classics professor Barry Strauss '74 led a discussion at the Cornell Club-New York that attracted many enthusiastic alumni, while groups such as the Cornell Club of Jacksonville and the Cornell Women's Club of Syracuse have also hosted events.
This year, the New Student Reading Project was incorporated into Trustee-Council Weekend in October; nearly 200 trustees, council members, and their guests attended a panel discussion of Lincoln at Gettysburg, moderated by the vice provost for undergraduate education, Michelle Moody-Adams. Topics included the relationship of the Gettysburg Address to the Declaration of Independence and the question of whether Lincoln was a racist. The weekend also included a viewing of the actual Gettysburg Address; Kroch Library has one of only five handwritten copies of the document in Lincoln's hand. "What's remarkable about Cornell is the ongoing invitation to be a Cornellian," says Alice Katz Berglas '66. "It is not only about being a student in your undergraduate years, but about lifelong opportunities to continue to be a Cornellian, always learning, always interacting with the University. In addition to Cornell's Adult University, Cybertower, and events at local clubs, the reading project is another great way that the University links several generations of Cornellians, debating and discussing issues together."
Berglas admits that she approaches each New Student Reading Project book a little differently from other titles she reads. "Not only do I read the book from the perspective of someone my age, but I also try to imagine it through the eyes of someone who is just starting out, the eighteen-year-old coming to Cornell with everything in front of him or her. That's a wonderful, exciting way for me to read or re-read these books."
Scott Pesner '87 serves on the Cornell Alumni Federation board as a director from the Metro NY Region.