When she was a new UC Berkeley student, Skyler Saunders just couldn’t connect with her roommate, who was a few years older and had different intellectual passions.
That changed when Saunders, now a fourth-year sociology major, realized they had both read Just Mercy, a memoir by Alabama attorney Bryan Stevenson. Conversation, and connection, flourished.
“We didn’t have a lot to talk about, in the beginning,” Saunders recalled recently. “But we had both read the book, and that gave us something in common. It was like an icebreaker. We became friends from there.”
They had both found the book through Berkeley’s On the Same Page program, a 13-year-old effort to help Berkeley’s new students unite over and examine a written work, like Just Mercy, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time or the musical Hamilton.
This year’s book, chosen with input from a faculty committee and a team of student reviewers, is There There by Tommy Orange, a work of fiction that centers around the Native American experience in the Bay Area.
“The novel examines what it means to be a contemporary native person who has to grapple with this world of colonization,” said Beth Piatote, an associate professor of Native American studies, who will interview Orange in Haas Pavilion on Aug. 26.
“The book gives us a great frame to think about what Berkeley and the Bay Area is historically, how it has changed and what it will become,” she added.
More than 6,400 first-year students, 2,600 new transfer students and 1,500 faculty received a link to download the book this summer. All resident hall advisers and new-student orientation leaders also received download codes.
“The goal of the program is for all new students to have a common intellectual experience,” said Alix Schwartz, director of academic planning for undergraduates in the College of Letters and Science and the creator of the On the Same Page program. “We’re such a big campus. There is nothing all the new students will have in common intellectually except this.”
Professors from varied disciplines like English, urban planning, American studies and linguistics will lead courses or panel talks on the topics raised by There There this fall. Students will also lead discussions of the book in residence halls.
Saunders recommended that all students, but especially ones new to Berkeley, attend the panels and book talks.
“I felt that going to those panels about Just Mercy my first year gave me a lot of insight into how to discuss literature and political issues,” she said. “I think it almost gave me a heads-up on how to have discussions about what I had read in all my different classes.”
“There’s a way people discuss literature in college that’s different from high school,” she added.
And even science or engineering students should take the time to engage, Piatote said.
“I love having students from the sciences in my literature classes,” Piatote said. “They always bring such incredibly rich insights.”
Piatote said she also hoped reading There There would open students up to Native American literature or learning more about Native American experiences.
“If you liked There There, talk to our Native American studies librarian. She’ll point you to other books and movies you will love,” Piatote said. “Take a Native American studies course. Eat at Café Ohlone on Bancroft. Visit a powwow; take a tour of Alcatraz on Indigenous People’s Day.”