Hood College aims to bond first-year students with the First-Year Read program.
Martha Bari, the coordinator of the program, said students create mini communities through reading the same book. “During fall orientation for the first-year students, they all meet in small groups to discuss the book they read and the issues that are presented in it,” she said.
The First-Year Read program connects the students through activates related to the book throughout the semester. “The author of the chosen book comes to campus every year and gives a speech,” Bari said. “It allows the students to interact with the author and ask him or her any questions they have about the book.”
Cory Messick, a first-year student at Hood College, said he really enjoyed the book, “A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School,” by Carlotta Walls LaNier, and her speech.
“It was really cool actually hearing her voice after reading about her experience,” Messick said. “I’m really happy I actually read the book.”
LaNier’s book chronicles the integration of the Little Rock Nine into Little Rock Central High School. LaNier is the youngest of the Little Rock Nine and her book goes into detail about her experience infiltrating an all-white school.
Bari noted that some of the first-year students don’t read the book for the program. “Even though the books are downloaded for free on their iPads, I think it’s an easy assumption that not everyone reads it,” she said. “The students aren’t graded on the material in the book, and some of them think it interferes with their summer vacation.”
Grant Kane, a junior, said he doesn’t remember what book he read as a part of the First-Year Read program. “I’m not sure I read the book we were supposed to. I don’t even remember the name of it, to be honest,” he said.
The junior class read “Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China” by Leslie Chang. Chang’s novel follows the lives of two young Chinese migrant workers. Chang also includes stories of her own family’s migration in with those of the two young women.
Bari said the hope is that the first-year students will make time to read the book and enjoy it. “We try to pick books that appeal to a wide audience, and I think students would enjoy the books we choose if they sat down and read them,” she said. “None of the books we choose are very long.”
Caitlin Fay, a senior, said she enjoyed the First-Year Read book and events. “I came in as an English major, so I really enjoyed reading the book and discussing it in our groups,” she said. “It was like a really relaxed English class that prepared me for some of the English courses I took.”
Even though Fay ended up switching her major, she said the First-Year Read program helped her transition into the role as a college student. “It gives you a sense of the kind of work you might be doing in classes, which is really nice,” she said.
Seniors graduating in 2015 read “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini. This was the first book chosen for the program when it began in 2011.
Hosseini’s book depicts the relationship between two women living in Kabul and how their friendship changes not only their lives, but the lives of their families as well.
“We wanted to share books with students that they maybe hadn’t thought of reading,” Bari said. “The goal was to make it easier for them to integrate into Hood and the curriculum and people, and I think the program has done a good job at that.”
Bari remarked that the book chosen for the program each year is also available to all students: “We allow all the students download the book for free and encourage them to participate in the events associated with the program. It gives the first-year students an opportunity to interact with students who participated in the program before and maybe get some tips on classes.”
Jeanie Cronin, a member of faculty services and Bari’s go-to for help with the First-Year Read program, said that she enjoys organizes the author’s visit to campus. “I often read the books chosen each year, so I get just as excited as the students do for the author to visit,” she said.
The first-year students share the events of the First-Year Read program and gives them ways to bond, Bari said. “They are all doing this together, whether they love it or hate it, and I think that gives them a reason to get excited or annoyed together, allowing them to form friendships and discover similar interests.”
“I just hope that more students love it rather than hate it,” she concluded.

Each book chosen for the First-Year Read Program features characters that face adversity but come out stronger in the end. This chart helps break down each book and point out the similarities among them:

Title A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, by Leslie Chang A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ismael Beah A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School, by Carlotta Walls LaNier
Setting Afghanistan China Sierra Leone Little Rock, Arkansas
Characters Mariam, Laila Min, Wu Cunming Ismael Beah Carlott Walls LaNier
Plot Two women growing up in Afghanistan face the harsh reality of war and how it changes their lives, usually not for the better. Two young Chinese migrant factory workers navigate life in the city of Dongguan, and adjust back to village life for the Chinese New Year. After his village is attacked during a civil war, Beah wanders from village to village until he is recruited to become an unwilling boy solider in the war. LaNier was the youngest of the nine African American children to integrate into Little Rock Central High School, and her book captures the torment and struggles she encountered.
Conclusion One woman dies, and the other honors her memory by naming her child after her. The young women go back to the migrant factory life to keep pursuing their fortune. Beah’s Lieutenant turns the boy soldiers over to UNICEF, and he eventually flees Sierra Leone to the U.S. for a new life LaNier graduates from Central High and goes on to share her experience.