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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Campus Life July 31, 2020

Smith Reads Helps Build Community

Educated: A Memoir. Illustration of the silhouette of a person climbing a mountain that is also the edge of a large pencil
This year’s Smith Reads selection centers on themes of isolation, resilience and the pull of family and culture—engaging subjects for a time of unprecedented change and uncertainty.

Author Tara Westover’s powerful memoir, “Educated,” about growing up in a survivalist Mormon community, “highlights a challenging journey experienced in all parts of life and education,” says Julianne Ohotnicky, dean of students and associate dean of the college, who serves on the Smith Reads book committee. “We anticipate there will be many robust conversations among students participating in the program.”

Westover will hold a virtual conversation about her book on Tuesday, August 25, at 4:30 p.m. with Baishakhi Taylor, dean of the college and vice president for campus life. Details about the event, which is open to all entering new students, will be posted online. Faculty facilitators will also connect with new students by house for discussions about “Educated” on Monday, August 31, from 4 to 5 p.m.

Established in 1999, the Smith Reads program offers entering first-year students, Ada Comstock Scholars and transfer students a way to build community through a shared reading experience. This year that community extends to alums, as well: The newly created Smith College Alumnae Virtual Book Club has selected “Educated” as the group’s first book.

Westover’s memoir contains some difficult material, including references to physical and emotional abuse, mental illness and the N-word.

In addition to presenting the author’s personal experience, “the book also asks some universal questions,” notes Jane Stangl, dean of the first-year class and chair of the book selection committee for Smith Reads. “How much do we give over to those we love? How do we move away from home? How many of us have educated ourselves away from our own family? And how do we come back to them?”

David Howlett, Mellon Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion and a faculty facilitator for the in-house book discussions, says Westover’s memoir raises important questions about “what it means to be educated and, consequently, what we lose and what we gain through our education.”

“Westover asks us to consider how we are shaped by the cruelty, generosity, cowardice and courage of others,” adds Howlett, who is a scholar of Mormonism. “These ‘others’ are not just the people who surround us, but extend to communities that existed long before we were born.”

Andrew Berke, assistant professor of chemistry and a member of the Smith Reads book selection committee, says he appreciates the way the program connects new students to the life of the college.

“The power of the Smith Reads program is the shared experience it offers all our incoming students, and this is never more necessary than this year,” he says, given the distancing necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Smith Reads allows all entering students to start Smith together,” Berke adds. “When those students start their first class this fall, it will be with the knowledge gained in their Smith Reads experience.”