Common reading brings new students together

By Michael Grondin

The University of Calgary is welcoming all new students with a book to spark a shared learning experience. As part of the Common Reading Program, all first-year students are given a book in the mail before September. The program is the only one of its kind in Western Canada.

The project was initiated in 2011 with Little Princes by Conor Grennan, which had a theme of globalization. This year’s selection is Bitter Medicine: A Graphic Memoir of Mental Illness by U of C drama professor Clem Martini and artist Olivier Martini.

The books are chosen through a nomination process and have a tie to the university community.

Bitter Medicine is about a family living with mental illness. It deals with the Martini family and their experiences with schizophrenia. The book works as a conversation between pictures and words, said Martini.

“What we had hoped to do is open up what it is like for a family to experience mental illness, the stigma surrounding it and the challenges it provokes,” said Martini. “This graphic memoir allowed us to talk across disciplines about how a life can be changed when a diagnosis of mental illness occurs.”

Martini also hopes that discussion about mental health awareness will increase.

Leadership and student engagement orientation coordinator Meg Martin said the goals of the program are community engagement and academic introduction.

“The books can be challenging, and something students haven’t read in high school. [The books] apply to multiple disciplines and they relate to the student experience in some way,” said Martin.

Martin said it can be difficult for new students to get involved with the campus community, however, the Common Reading Program aims to bring students together.

“We want students to have a conversation starter before they come to campus, and this program is a simple way to accomplish that,” she said. “The books can also engage students in critical thought and discussion about the issues they present, and it can start critical dialogue which is what university is about inside and outside the classroom.”

Martini said the program is a good initiative to strengthen community.

“The notion is that through reading and through examining a book, it permits certain opportunities to draw a class together, to provoke discussion and provide a common point of reference,” said Martini. “It allows students to think right from the beginning about issues presented by the text, and explore these issues as a community.”

Martin said the book will be integrated into orientation week, as well as lectures in first-year classes. There will also be organized discussions and opportunities to speak with the authors.

“We are a large community-based campus, and the more we can do to increase the connections, the better. We just really want to help new students get engaged and enjoy their experience,” said Martin.

Throughout the year, students, faculty and staff can participate in the nomination process for next year’s book.

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