For Jennine Capó Crucet, having her debut novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers, selected as Whitman's 2017 Summer Read for first-year students proved more than just an opportunity to share her acclaimed work with 400 new readers. As she told an enthusiastic audience in Cordiner Hall last night, it also fulfilled a long-standing desire to see the college for herself.
"Coming to Whitman, you made a good choice there," she said before beginning her reading. A good choice she made—honoring her wish to visit Whitman—dovetailed with a memorable connection from years earlier, she said.
"It's really surreal to be on Whitman's campus," she continued. The reason? A transformative meeting she had with a Whitman admission officer a few years ago when working as a counselor at the Los Angeles-based nonprofit One Voice, which provides goods, services and opportunities to the underprivileged, including assisting low-income teens with the college application process.
"The biggest thing that I remember from that day—and this is really relevant right now, so if I get a little misty-eyed, forgive me—he kept referring to pre-documented students," she said. "And this was a term we didn't use in our office and hadn't heard. I had actually never heard that from a recruiter before. We tended to say undocumented, but he was saying pre-documented. So I did what anyone with a strong liberal arts education does, which is ask questions. I said, 'You keep saying pre-documented. What do you mean by that?'"
The answer "said so much about Whitman and what an inclusive and intellectually robust place this is," she explained. "He said, 'Well, we believe at Whitman that there will be a way through this, it's just a matter of time before the DREAM Act passes, and we want to be on the right side of history. We know how much power language has, so we say pre-documented students.'"
"I totally wanted to go to Whitman by the time he was done," she revealed. "Everything he said made me want to visit so bad, even though I was already an adult who had gone to college. I was still totally convinced that Whitman was the right place for me."
The rally in Walla Walla on Wednesday to defend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that the Trump administration recently rescinded reaffirmed that belief. She arrived to town just in time to attend it. "The Whitman community was very present and was taking a leadership role," said Crucet, an assistant professor of English and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska.
Make Your Home Among Strangers grapples with germane themes including immigration, discrimination and socioeconomics. Winner of the International Latino Book Award for Best Latino-themed Fiction, it tells the story of first-generation Cuban American college student Lizet and is dedicated to her former students at One Voice. She said she was "thrilled" and "moved" that the Class of 2021 read it.
Whitties who attended the talk returned her praise.
"I personally really enjoyed the book," said Leyla Hertzig '21 of Coconut Grove, Florida. "It brought up great discussions with my family about concerns I have about starting college as a person of color from a lower income family."
Yana Miakshyla '21, from Belarus, added, "I liked the book because I could relate to some things as an international student who comes from not a really wealthy family."
Jordon Crawford '21, an international student from Jamaica, "could relate whole-heartedly" to the issues addressed in the text, he declared, "whether it be the elitism, the cultural differences, the family and identity crisis, etc."
And Tacoma native Thomas Harris '20, a student academic advisor (SA) in Jewett Hall, said the reading sparked important conversations between first-year residents. "The book is meant to challenge assumptions. Characters, including the less-than-altruistic narrator, Lizet, are constantly making and breaking assumptions about themselves and about each other, and the book is most fascinating when it is exploring those assumptions," he said. "The book is not written to make you as a reader happy. It is meant to be a discomforting and uncertain story without a clear happy ending."
A first-generation college student herself, Crucet relayed an anecdote about her orientation at Cornell University: "The confusion started right away," she recalled. "We didn't know families were supposed to leave pretty much as soon as they unloaded your stuff from the car." As a result, she said, her parents, younger sister and grandmother, who had accompanied her to Upstate New York from Miami, stayed around until after her classes had officially started.
"The book teaches us that coming to college is not just about moving to a new location on a map but for many is about moving into a complex new culture, and that an institution can do better, or it can do worse, in helping those students turn that move into an important and positive moment in their life's journey," said Student Engagement Center Director Noah Leavitt, who gave the introduction. "As Whitman has taken large steps over the last few years toward welcoming talented students from around the country, and as we have made significant changes in how we help those students join and grow from and contribute to our community, I can think of no better book to meet that moment."
Hertzig echoed, "It was definitely a great book choice for the summer reading assignment because even if students couldn't personally relate to the story as I did, it helped them better understand what some of their classmates could be going through."
Further wit and wisdom from Jennine Capó Crucet
She bantered with the crowd throughout the event.
For instance, Crucet made much of Whitman perks such as free laundry and parking. "You guys don't know how good you have it. I think there are families that take out second mortgages to finance parking when their kids go to college."
In fielding questions, she responded with humor—Crucet uses stand-up techniques as part of her teaching style. Asked what advice she would give herself if she could relive her own first year of college, she admonished, "Stop staying up all night to do your homework. It's not a competition, who can sleep the least!" She also told Whitties to drink plenty of water and always wear a coat when it's cold out. "I think I aged like 12 years in four years," she quipped.
And Crucet read a portion of the novel that dealt with the protagonist's academic probation hearing over allegations of inadvertent plagiarism. The deans' voices, though sympathetic, drip with condescension.