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Education, Equity, and The New Kids

I just wrapped up a weeklong visit in the Green Mountain State, where I spent a few days on campus at The University of Vermont. The Honors College selected The New Kids as its Summer Read for incoming freshmen, and as such I was invited to deliver a public lecture on the theme that the students will be considering all year: The Pursuit of Knowledge. I have to say, I really enjoyed writing the speech, which is titled “Learning America: Connecting Cultures in a Brave New World.”

As I told the crowd of 200 people who gathered in the university’s music recital hall last week: “I titled this lecture ‘Learning America’ because that’s what the students in the book are doing every single day that they are here in this country as new immigrants. Learning America, and what it means to be American, is an ongoing process for people who have immigrated to this country. And it’s an ongoing process for those of us who were born and raised here, too. We may not think about it consciously every day, but occasionally, as a nation, we are confronted with some version of the question: What does it mean to be American?”

After the lecture, Freeman Degboe and Mukta Mukta—two graduates from the International High School at Prospect Heights who are now students at UVM—joined me onstage to answer questions from the audience. There were some challenging questions about my reporting process as well as fun ones for Freeman and Mukta. For instance: “What’s your favorite band?” Freeman said he really likes “The Nickelback.” After apologizing for not being a “music person,” Mukta finally answered that her younger siblings like The Jonas Brothers.

Over the next couple of days, I visited four classes at the Honors College, and the students kept me on my toes with more questions about writing as a career, specific characters inThe New Kids, and my personal thoughts on immigration policy. At the end of each class, the students turned in essays they had written about the book, in response to this query.

All in all, it was a very worthwhile visit.

In the Summer of 2012, the incoming first-year class of the UVM Honors College was assigned Brooke Hauser’s The New Kids as their summer reading. The students connected deeply with the book, and also connected deeply with Brooke Hauser herself, who was the guest of the Honors College for three days in the first week of the fall semester. Brooke’s generosity was deeply appreciated by the students, who recognized the care she took to write a public lecture aimed directly at them, and who responded deeply to her genuine interest in their challenging and engaging questions. We could not have imagined a better, more productive and exciting start to the academic year; we could not have chosen a book that was better at engaging our students in crucial issues related to education and equity. The rich narrative detail of the book inspired the students to probe more deeply into their own recent history as high school students, finding not only differences but, especially, powerful points of convergence between their experiences and the lives of the immigrant students in The New Kids.

–Lisa Schnell
Associate Dean, Honors College; Associate Professor, English
University of Vermont