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College Freshmen Learn From 'Enrique's Journey'

Before incoming freshmen actually step onto campus, many get their first assignment: a "common read." Colleges and universities assign the same book for freshmen to read over the summer to facilitate discussions once they get to school.

Sonia Nazario's book Enrique's Journeyis on dozens of required reading lists this year. It tells the story of a Honduran boy who embarks on a perilous search to find his mother in the United States. Enrique's mother left to find work in the United States when he was 5, and he sets out to track her down as a teenager.

"He makes eight attempts to cross Mexico, and [students] see that he nearly dies in this quest, in this modern-day odyssey to reach his mother," Nazario tells NPR's Lynn Neary. "And I think that teaches them a lot about being determined as they go through college."

Nazario talks about why she believes it's important to expose college freshmen to books that address controversial topics like immigration. Rick Mayes, a professor of public policy at the University of Richmond, discusses how the book enhanced the college experience of his students.

Interview Highlights

On what students learn from the book

Nazario: "What I hear a lot from students every day in emails and traveling across the country to campuses is they learn to be more grateful for what they have, that they have their mother and father, oftentimes, there by their sides, that they're grateful for what they have, that they can eat every day, that they can go past the third grade schooling because their parents can afford to do that.

"And they also learn incredible determination of seeing — reading the story of Enrique, because he makes eight attempts to cross Mexico, and they see that he nearly dies in this quest, in this modern-day odyssey to reach his mother. And I think that teaches them a lot about being determined as they go through college."

Mayes: "Many of them are facing huge transitions. They are leaving their parents sometimes for the first time. They're adjusting to a new destination that they hope will turn out well, but they don't know if it will yet. And so this book really connects with them on an individual level.

"And it shows coping skills. It shows resilience, and it shows how individuals can overcome huge challenges. And so you can have an orientation session in college that talks about that explicitly, but usually students will tune that out. But if you can kind of come at them from a different angle and with a different kind of story, but with the same underlying message, in a sense, we as professors and schools benefit from students hearing this story."

On informing students about immigration issues

Nazario: "I think what's unique about it is that it broadens an awareness of cultures other than what most people know, and it promotes global awareness ... But it's also about something that's happening in a lot of these students' backyards. ...

"Traditionally, immigrants went to six states. But in the last 20 years — 15, 20 years, they've swept across this country to places like Omaha and Raleigh and Birmingham. And so this is an issue that students can learn about what's pushing people out of these countries in terms of places like Honduras, but it's also a very real issue in their own backyards."

Mayes: "We, at the University of Richmond, we try to take the learning out of the classroom and into the community as best we can. And this book is a great catalyst for that. We end up taking them to two local destinations. One is a free health clinic that ends up serving a lot of the people that are described in the book by local clinicians ... And they also get to go to a local restaurant that is very successful ... and it's founded by an immigrant who came to this country.

"And that's when they also begin to see that immigration isn't just immigration at an abstract level ... And they begin to realize that immigration is not just — again, immigration in this sort of sanitized, nonrelevant way. But it's the economic policy. It's health policy. It's education policy, and it makes the topic much more interesting to them."

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