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First Engagements: A Community Book Project at Transylvania University

Transylvania’s first-year students begin the 2011-12 academic year by reading, thinking, and — most likely — debating with one another.

As part of the First Engagements community book project, students are reading and discussing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a nonfiction book by Rebecca Skloot that tells the true story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor African American tobacco farmer who died of cancer in 1951, and the “immortal” HeLa cell line taken from the tumor that killed her.

The HeLa cells are unique because they can divide an unlimited number of times without dying, and are instrumental in developing the polio vaccine, researching cancer, mapping the human genome, and more. But Lacks’s descendents have no idea that her cells had been harvested and were being bought and sold for research. The book tackles thorny issues of race, class, and medical ethics.

“We want our students to know that education is about taking risks and being willing to think aggressively about the topics under consideration,” says Transylvania President R. Owen Williams. “They’re not really sure what direction the conversation will go, and they know their thoughts will be judged by a peer group that’s new to them, and that’s a risky endeavor, no question about it. But it’s good training for college. We want them to think critically and boldly.”

“This experience communicates to students that the liberal arts college environment is qualitatively different from the high school environment that they have recently left,” says Mark Jackson, associate professor of psychology and the First Engagements program coordinator. “Additionally, through group discussions and ensuing conversations about the text, we hope to model the process of free and open debate, and how to respectfully disagree.”

Many upper-class students, faculty, and staff have read the book and will join the discussions that take place during the first week of classes.

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