Roger Sauerhaft

Incoming first-year students will soon be reading about civil war, transnationalism and the personal story of one former refugee in Africa, through the summer reading program book selection, What is the What.

After sifting through possible summer reading books since fall, the summer reading program committee and the Office of Liberal Education have selected the novel written by University of California-Berkeley professor and author Dave Eggers.

This partly fictionalized work is the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a young man who was displaced from his family in southern Sudan during the country’s civil war.

Both Eggers and Deng will be speaking at Miami University’s 2007 convocation Aug. 17.

The work is semi-fictionalized in that it is a composite memoir, taking into account Deng’s story and other similar stories, according to committee member and English professor Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson.

Deng’s story is set in 1990s Sudan, when the country was plagued by a civil war.

Deng’s joined a generation full of “Lost Boys” in refugee camps throughout Africa. He eventually finds his way to America in pursuit of an education. In America however, he still struggles to find community and safety, as he is held captive and beaten people who break into his apartment while living in Atlanta. After years of hard work, he gains acceptance to Allegheny College, where he is currently a sophomore.

Yet outside of the personal story of Deng, Lewiecki-Wilson hopes that the larger issues of globalization and awareness will resonate with students.

“The major theme (of the book) is the knowledge of what’s going on in the world, the civil unrests,” Lewiecki-Wilson said.

She added that the book was a good choice because it is interesting and engrossing.

“It keeps you on the edge and makes you want to keep reading,” Lewiecki-Wilson said.

She explained that even though the book doesn’t focus on the current conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan, it should still capture students’ interests who are interested in that conflict.

Lewiecki-Wilson said this year’s reading has the strong support of both students and faculty. One reason she cited is that students can relate to Valentino in how they are coming of age and pursuing their educations, just as he does.

Liewiecki-Wilson had only one reservation about this year’s book.

“It’s a bit long,” Liewiecki-Wilson said. “We’re always worried about that, but hopefully (students) read it, or at least part, so they can go back and finish after hearing the speakers (at convocation).”

When Eggers and Deng both appear for convocation Aug. 17 at Millet Hall, it will mark the 26th year of Miami’s Summer Reading Program.

This will also be the 17th year of having the author speak to students. William Gracie, dean of Miami’s interdisciplinary studies program, began this tradition when he took over the Summer Reading Program in 1990, making Miami one of the first to have the author of each book speak at convocation, according to current committee chair and Assistant Dean of the School of Fine Arts, Rosalyn Erat Benson.

Benson said Miami believes this program is important for students new to campus, even though students still have the option of participating.

“(The program) ties every incoming student to campus so that their first experience is shared,” Benson said. “It’s strongly suggested that students read it, but not mandated due to the principle of academic freedom.”

Because of this optional participation, the challenge has been to find something that students will actually want to read.

First-year marketing major Brittany Hughes thought the choice for the 2006-07 academic year, Ahmad’s War, Ahmad’s Peace, didn’t relate enough to her.

“(It) wasn’t too interesting, so I didn’t read too much of it,” Hughes said. “If the subject related more to the college student (the program) might be more successful.”

Other students, who did read through the entire book, thought it was appropriate.

“(It was) good because it was about current events, so we could relate to it,” said first-year Dan Houston.

Every year, both faculty and students alike measure the effectiveness of this program, according to Jerry Stonewater, director of the Office of Liberal Education and Assessment.

He said this past year the process for evaluating the program was done online, conducted as a survey by the Office of Student Affairs, and given out to students, faculty and discussion leaders for feedback.

He said the reading program encourages to be come involved with Miami’s liberal education plan.

“(The goal is) to engage students intellectually in liberal education, as this relates to the four principles (thinking critically, understanding contexts, engaging with other learners, reflecting and acting) of the Miami Plan,” Stonewater said.

This year, with What is the What having exceedingly strong support of the committee, and with speakers Wilson described as “very exciting and captivating” appearing in August, Wilson believes Summer Reading Program for 2007 has a strong outlook.