Jennine Capó Crucet enjoyed more than the opportunity to share her work with 400 new readers when Whitman College selected her debut novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers (St. Martin's Press, 2015), as its 2017 Summer Read for incoming first years. The collaboration also brought her full circle after an uplifting encounter with a Whitman admission officer years earlier at a Los Angeles-based nonprofit where she had worked assisting low-income teens with the college application process.
"The biggest thing that I remember from that day: He kept referring to ‘pre-documented students,'" said Crucet during her visit to Whitman in September to hold a reading and otherwise engage with Whitties. "This was a term we didn't use in our office," she continued.
"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," explained Crucet, an assistant professor of English and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "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.'"
She added, "I totally wanted to go to Whitman by the time he was done, 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."
Make Your Home Among Strangers grapples with germane themes such as immigration and class discrimination. Winner of the International Latino Book Award for Best Latino-themed Fiction, it tells the story of first-generation Cuban American college student, Lizet. Her first visit home to Miami, Florida, is overshadowed by the media circus surrounding 5-year-old Ariel Hernandez, whose perilous voyage from Cuba by raft is a fictionalized account of the 2000 Elián González case.
Whitman students found her tale inspiring and enlightening.
The book "brought up great discussions with my family about concerns I have about starting college as a person of color from a lower income family," said Leyla Hertzig '21 of Coconut Grove, Florida. "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."
Jordon Crawford '21 from Portmore, Jamaica, "could relate whole-heartedly" to the issues addressed in the text, "whether it be the elitism, the cultural differences, the family and identity crisis, etc."
For Tacoma native Thomas Harris '20, a student academic adviser in Jewett Hall, the reading sparked important conversations. "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."
Crucet, a first-generation college student herself, shared an anecdote with the audience at Whitman about her own 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. For many, it is about moving into a complex new culture," said Noah Leavitt, director of the Student Engagement Center. "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."
Whitman's annual Summer Read Program requires incoming first-year students to read the same book prior to their arrival on campus. They discuss it during Orientation Week with their resident and student academic advisers as well as in classes. The book's author also gives a public lecture on campus in the fall semester. Previous Summer Reads have included Leslie Jamison's essays The Empathy Exams (2016); Edwidge Danticat's memoir Brother, I'm Dying (2015); Sherman Alexie's novel Reservation Blues (2014); Dave Eggers' narrative nonfiction Zeitoun (2010); and Marjane Satrapi's comic-strip autobiography The Complete Persepolis (2008).