Cartwright meets with freshman class

Rachel Abbey

Summer reading project launched to promote community

President Carol Cartwright discusses The Color of Water with freshman mathematics major Jill Jeckel during the first meeting of an Honors Freshman Orientation class.

Credit: Ben Breier

Students in a freshmen orientation class broke into groups of seven or eight students, pulling chairs and couches into small circles around Van Campen’s lounge and making their name tags visible.

President Carol Cartwright chose a seat in one of the three circles, and sat down to discuss the students’ summer reading, James McBride’s The Color of Water.

“I didn’t feel like she was the president of the university,” said Jill Jeckel, freshman mathematics major. “It felt like she was one of us.”

Cartwright was helping to lead summer reading discussions Friday in one of the two honors arts and sciences orientation sections.

This year the university launched a mandatory summer reading program for all freshmen, said Terri Capellman, director of First-Year Experience.

“We’ve been talking about it as a way to build a deeper sense of community,” Cartwright said.

“Discussions were led by 102 volunteers from various areas of the university, ranging from executive officers to faculty and staff members,” Capellman said. “Many of these administrators would not normally interact with incoming freshmen.”

“It’s wonderful for students to get to know people who run the university but don’t have a teaching role,” Cartwright said.

The volunteers were very excited to get involved with the students, she said.

Volunteers attended a two-hour training session, where they learned how to lead discussions, decided what topics to focus on and talked about how to address possible problems, Capellman said. They also discussed diversity and familiarized themselves with diversity-related programs on campus.

Before the book discussion, students in the class Cartwright attended became acquainted with their student instructor, Nicholas Kelley, and their faculty instructor, Kimberly Winebrenner. They also introduced themselves and went over some goals for the semester. Kelley and Winebrenner stressed that this orientation course is different and more interactive than some on campus.

“It’s not a class to learn how to read a book or to take notes,” Kelley said. “It’s a class to learn how to interact in the university community.”

The leaders of the book discussions, Cartwright, Kelley and Winebrenner, rotated between the groups.

Most of Cartwright’s questions and topics related to how students connected with The Color of Water, and if they felt it will relate to their college experiences.

Capellman said a panel of 14 faculty, staff and students chose The Color of Water because of its engaging topics and focus on diversity. She said they felt it could spark conversation between the students.

Cartwright asked the groups how they felt the issues in this book related to Kent State and college students in general. The Color of Water deals with prejudice, especially interracial relationships. Eric Shelestak, freshman computer science major, said while the story made him think, he didn’t think prejudice was as common anymore.

Cartwright said the university tries to make sure there is a good mix of students from different backgrounds, cultures and countries at Kent State to encourage diversity and tolerance.

Some students said they had trouble identifying with the characters in the book, especially because the time frame was so different from today. Cartwright said she had an easier time relating because she remembers the segregation of the 1950s, when people didn’t cross racial and cultural boundaries as often. In one group, she told them she didn’t even eat spaghetti until high school.

Junior anthropology major Courtney Mullett said she thought it was interesting when Cartwright gave examples from her own life. Being older than most students in the orientation class, Mullett said she was familiar with Cartwright’s position and importance on campus, and she enjoyed the chance to sit down and talk one-on-one with her.

“If someone tells you presidents of universities can be scary people, I hope you’ll say, ‘No,’” Cartwright said to the group at the end of her discussion.

Capellman said the program will most likely continue, although the university wants to know if students felt the project was worthwhile. She said she has received positive feedback from discussion leaders. The long-term goal is to have a different diversity-related book each year.

Author James McBride will be visiting Kent State as a guest speaker Sept. 14, Cartwright said.

Contact administration reporter Rachel Abbey at [email protected].