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 Journey is 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.
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."
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
Every summer, many incoming college freshmen get their first assignment: common reads. Colleges and universities assign the same book for freshman to read over the summer and follow it up with a discussion once they arrive on campus. Up first in our Freshman Reads series is Sonia Nazario's widely read book "Enrique's Journey." Since its release in 2006, freshmen across the country have been absorbed by the story of a Honduran boy's perilous trek across borders in hopes of reuniting with his mother in the United States after 11 years of separation.
It continues to be on the reading list of not just colleges and universities, but common reads for many cities, as well. Sonia Nazario joins us in a moment. But first, we want to hear from you. If you've read "Enrique's Journey," what did you take away from it? Our number is 800-989-8255, and our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can join the conversation on Twitter. Tweet us @totn. Sonia Nazario won a Pulitzer Prize for her 2002 reporting on the real-life journey that is "Enrique's Journey."
We turned her reporting in the book. And Sonia Nazario joins us now. She turned her reporting into a book, and Sonia Nazario joins us now by phone.
Welcome to the program, Sonia.
SONIA NAZARIO: It's an honor to be here. Thank you, Lynn.
NEARY: Now, your book revolves around a very important, very sensitive, very timely topic in this country right now: immigration. So why do you think that is a good subject for a book that freshmen will be reading as they start college?
NAZARIO: Well, I think in terms of college, a lot of colleges look for a checklist of 10 different things that they're looking for in a book. And much to my delight, "Enrique's Journey" had a lot of those elements. 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, which is one of those things on that checklist. But it's also about something that's happening in a lot of these students' backyards.
I mean, 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. And I think the other thing that's really driven it is it's an issue that these students can identify with because they, too, are dealing with this separation from their families for the first time going to college.
The protagonist in the story "Enrique's Journey" is a similar age to a lot of these college students. So despite kind of - you know, in addition to dealing with a lot of the themes that colleges look for - of loss of hope, of determination, etc. - it has kind of all these elements that colleges are looking for. And it's a hot, you know, issue right now, immigration. So that's another thing that's really driven its success on college campuses.
NEARY: Well, I think the fact that Enrique is - he's 17, as the book begins, I think it is. And, of course, you know, that's very close to the age of many kids who are going into college. And he's dealing with - not only is he dealing with this terrible issue of the loss of his mother - his mother has gone to the United States to earn money, but he really has grown up without her. But he's reacting to that, at times, in a very adolescent way, really. He's angry at his mother, even though his mother has gone to try and help her children. So it seems to me that there's a lot there for kids to take in.
NAZARIO: Yeah. And I think the themes that - 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.
You know, Lynn, I share my personal story when I speak on college campuses. I lost my father when I was 13. My family took us back to Argentina. We lived through parts of the Dirty War in Argentina, where people were being disappeared all around me. Friends and relatives were being killed.
I came back to the U.S., went to a very mediocre public high school, landed in one of the best colleges in the country and really struggled to get through a lot of my adolescence in my college years. But it was that determination - that ganas, as we say, Latinos say - that got me through a lot of those difficult moments. And I think they learned from Enrique how to muster on.
NEARY: Yeah, and I think a lot of kids - I mean, as sophisticated as many college freshman are these days, as smart as they may be - for a lot them, they may really not be - have had any idea that somebody had to go through what Enrique had to go through to try and reconnect with his mother. This is like brand-new information for them.
NAZARIO: Yeah. I mean, I'm stunned by how little a lot of the students know. They tell me: I had no idea what's pushing people out of places like Honduras. The poverty, I mean, that mothers often describe to me filling a big glass with water and putting in a little teaspoonful of sugar, a dollop of tortilla dough to fill their children's bellies with something because they were crying at night with hunger, not being able to send their kids to school past the third grade. There's a fairly wide level of ignorance by American students that I see of what's driving people to come here and what they're willing to do to get here. And I think Enrique's story is very instructive for them in that way.
NEARY: I'd like to bring Rick Mayes into the conversation now. He is one of the many professors who has assigned "Enrique's Journey" to his students. He's associate professor of public policy at the University of Richmond, and he joins us from member station WCBE.
Rick, you not only assign this book, but you have built field trips around it. Tell us about that. And welcome to the program, by the way. And tell us about these field trips that you've organized.
RICK MAYES: Yeah. Thank you for having me. It's a great book, and the students do respond to it very emotionally. 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 we get to interview both the patients and the clinicians who devote their lives to it. And that produces another kind of emotional response when they see people who have very basic health needs that aren't met.
And they also get to go to a local restaurant that is very successful. It's an ethnic restaurant. In fact, it's one that a lot of the students go to not knowing its origins. 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. It's their local establishment. It's places where the kids eat. And then they realize that this person has created jobs in the community. This person has created opportunities for other people. They pay taxes. It's a big part of our economy in the local area.
And they begin to realize that immigration is not just - again, immigration in this sort of sanitized, non-relevant 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.
NEARY: Yeah. Why do you think it's important for incoming college freshman to read this kind of book that's dealing with a controversial issue like immigration?
MAYES: Well, I think Sonia hit on it really well. And it's an important public issue for our country to deliberate over more and to try to get better policies for. And so that is something that's important for students to grapple with. And at the very same time, in their own individual personal lives, 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 show 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.
NEARY: Sonia - and actually, Rick, both of you. But, Sonia, let me ask you first. You know, the book is, I think, pretty empathetic to Enrique and his mother and to what they go through. But have you encountered students who reacted very negatively to this story, or who feel that, you know, the mother never should have come to the United States, left her children behind, who feel that Enrique should not have tried to follow her and get into the United States illegally? I mean, what - have you - and how did you deal with that? What's your reaction to that when that happens, Sonia?
NAZARIO: You know, there's been very - very little negative reaction to the book on college campuses. I honestly expected more. But I think because I approached this in a journalistic way, I am telling the story of these millions of mothers who have come here, single mothers, why they come here, that they've left their children behind, and that after 10 years of not seeing mom, these kids despair and they set off to go find her and what they do to come to the United States. So it's really describing this phenomenon in the United States that's led to many of the neighbors around you now, these women and these children.
The last chapter in the book does look at the immigration issue, and it really does walk you through it. You know, I see this as an issue with many shades of gray, not black and white. And there are winners and there are losers. And so I think it leads to a really good debate about the issue. And in that sense, it really ties in to this kind of movement on college campuses to grapple with controversial issues. It's both - it's called the civic agency movement. It really got a thrust in 2008, and there was a White House initiative this year. But it's really seeing that only 6 percent of kids coming to college have critical thinking skills, good critical thinking skills.
And so going through these debates helped them develop the skills that they need: problem-solving and listening and being empathetic and being able to solve problems. And a lot of those students try to come to some consensus as part of these movements on college campuses, and then move to some solution and bring that solution about.
And so - like at Northern Arizona University, I mean, Arizona is ground zero for the immigration - anti-immigration, illegal immigration movement, and yet they debated this book. And then they decided to take a team of students and professors to Honduras to build houses for single mothers so that fewer of these mothers would feel compelled to leave. And then there have been a whole range of about 10 other things - both locally and on the border and in Honduras - to try to address this issue. So it's part of a movement to get students to think more critically.
NEARY: Sonia Nazario is the author of "Enrique's Journey," and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
We're going to take a call now from Mac, who is calling Phoenix, Arizona.
MAC: Hi. How's it going?
NEARY: Good, thanks.
MAC: Quick question for the author: Did she, in researching the book, come across any other reasons for, you know, this mass migration of people besides poverty? Is there anything else going on in Honduras that could explain all this?
NAZARIO: Well, there are a lot of things that explain this. There's corruption in Honduras. There's a very poor economy. There's - there is chain migration, as well. So once you get migrants in the United States, they send for their family members. So disrupting that chain migration is all part of that. But for a lot of the single mothers, there was that growing disintegration of families. And with one salary - with two salaries, it's almost impossible to survive in Honduras. But certainly, with one salary, it's very, very difficult.
And so, repeatedly, I saw these women who just could not feed their children, could not send them to school past the third grade, and they wanted their children to live in something better than the grinding misery that they had to grow up in. And they saw this alternative to the north. And honestly, the United States, in the past, has had a schizophrenic immigration policy, where on the one hand, we said we do want people to come here unlawfully, but on the other hand, left the, you know, the backdoor open because it was good for employers to have cheap, compliant workers.
So I think over the last few decades, we both held our hand up and left the backdoor open. So I think there are many complex reasons what's pushing people out of places like Honduras and what's drawing them to the United States.
NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for that call. And we - in addition to on-campus discussions and - there are some online discussions. There are some blogging going on around the book as people get ready for the school year to begin, and I wanted to read from one of those - an excerpt from one of those blogs, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
(Reading) Continuing study staff and faculty this past spring read and discussed the thought-provoking true story and national bestseller "Enrique's Journey." And with tears in her eyes, Mairena-Kellman told the group how she, too, left her son behind, always thinking she would return to Peru. Just as Enrique did, Mairena-Kellman's son came to the U.S. as an older teen. At first, he was elated to be with his mother, but shortly after arriving, he started expressing his anger at having felt abandoned in childhood.
Mairena-Kellman said she was lucky she lived in Madison. Someone connected her with a Spanish-speaking therapist, and she and her son have finally found peace. An instructional specialist for UW-Extension - Cooperative Extension, Mairena-Kellman helps area Latino families grow and prepare local produce and other foods.
So there is a - I would think, for you, Sonia - a very satisfying impact that your book is having on someone's life.
NAZARIO: Oh, I remember that encounter with her very well. It was incredibly emotional. She was crying and telling me about how this - had affected her children. And that's part of the complexity of this story, is that when children are separated from their mothers for 10 years, initially, there is that joyous reunion. But then it heads south, and a lot of these kids fault their mothers for leaving them for so long. And so that's what - the book is not pat in saying that this is all good for the immigrants, either. It's bad for migrants to be - for people - families to be separated in that way, and it has huge social consequences, both within those families and more broadly.
And so - and she knew that story very well, and she had lived the negative consequences of those separations. And that's all part of the complexity. But I see this story touch people in very different ways. For Anglo students or white students, it's mostly understanding the migrants who live around them much better. For Latino students, it's a sense of pride that their story has been told, and that colleges - it's important enough for college students to find their story. For African-American students, they are parallel to the great migration of the South.
I had a student in Chicago say to me, you know, my grandmother came North left and my mother behind in Mississippi, and I have a better bond with these Latino students around me now because I understand their story in a deeper way. So it touches people in very different ways.
NEARY: And, Sonia, we've had a couple of questions from callers, asking whether you would find this an appropriate book for a 12 or 13-year-old.
NAZARIO: I have seen parents and schools assign it to 12 and 13-year-olds, but Random House, my publisher, is actually coming out with a young adult version of the book...
NEARY: All right. That's great.
NAZARIO: ...next August. So it...
NEARY: Sonia, thanks so much. We're running out of time. But thanks so much for joining us. Sonia Nazario is the author of "Enrique's Journey." Thanks also to Rick Mayes, professor at the University of Richmond, who joined us earlier.
I'm Lynn Neary. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.