The Other Wes Moore, and student Sirena Wurth discuss what students gain from reading collectively." />
NPR

College Common Reads: Learning From 'Wes Moore'

Many colleges are assigning all incoming freshman a common book to read and discuss in their first week on campus. (iStockphoto.com)

A growing number of colleges are assigning "common reads" — books that all incoming freshmen must read over the summer and prepare to discuss in their first week on campus.

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, is one of 2011's most popular common reads. In the book, author Wes Moore tracks his own life, alongside the fate of another man of the same name.

While both Wes Moores grew up in poverty in Baltimore, the two men had dramatically different fates: The author became a Rhodes Scholar, while the other Moore is serving a life sentence in prison for murder.

University of Louisville junior Sirena Wurth is a freshman orientation leader who helps facilitate freshman discussions about The Other Wes Moore. Wurth and Moore tell NPR's Rebecca Roberts that they are thrilled at how students and schools are responding to the book.


Interview Highlights

On what students can learn about the importance of expectations

Wurth: "I think a lot of freshmen come in and they either have expectations coming in from their parents, or expectations coming in that they've set personally. And I think in [The Other Wes Moore] you really, really see the impact that expectations can have, not only in life, but specifically how they can apply it toward their education. ... I think that's something that a lot of the freshmen can relate to."

Moore: "I remember there was actually a scene in the book where Wes and I were talking. And I asked him, 'So do you think that we're products of our environment?' We were talking about Baltimore. He said ... 'You know, I think we're products of our expectations.'

"And it's so important that these students ... really see the importance of that — that the expectations that you have for yourself really matter. Because we are a nation of self-fulfilling prophecies. And so what we envision, and how we're willing to work at it, can really make all the difference as to where we end up."

On how schools are linking The Other Wes Moore with community service

Moore: "For so many of these students who are coming into college, they know how lucky they are. They know, at a time like now in particular, to have an opportunity to attend a college or university is just an extraordinary honor. ... It means a lot of people have sacrificed and worked on your behalf, and that the collegiate experience can't simply be about what are you learning. It also needs to be about what are you giving, and what is the sacrifice that you're wiling to make in order to help make the lives of others better? ...

"We're doing service projects around the country with all the individual schools. Each one of them are individual and tailored to the demographic that the school finds itself in. Some people are focusing on education; one school is focusing on juvenile justice; one school is focusing on immigration issues. But all of them are doing a larger service project with their freshman class.

"And I've been so inspired, because that really is the larger intent and purpose of the book. So to see people not only entering school having read it ... but then also knowing that they're going to make a demonstrable difference in their college campus, and in their community around it, has been really inspiring and heartening."

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Transcript

REBECCA ROBERTS, host: Fall semester is approaching, and freshman students are gearing up for their first year of college, figuring out their way around campus and stocking up on quarters for laundry, hoping their roommates aren't too weird. And there's a new ritual college students share. In recent years, more colleges are starting a freshman common read program, where first year students will all read the same book and then discuss it during their first week at school. We were so intrigued by this notion that we decided to have the TALK OF THE NATION Freshman Reads series to talk with the author and a student about the experiences of a freshman common read.

To kick off our series, we're talking about "The Other Wes Moore," which has made the list for several colleges and universities. We also want to hear from you. Have you read "The Other Wes Moore"? And what does this book have to offer freshman students? Give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. We'd also like to know which book you think belongs on a freshman common read list. You can do that via email. Talk@npr.org is the email address. Please put freshman in the subject line.

After we wrap up the series, we will tell you the top choices. Joining us now from our New York bureau is the author of "The Other Wes Moore," Wes Moore. Welcome to the program.

WES MOORE: Hi, Rebecca. How are you?

ROBERTS: Also joining us is Sirena Worth. She's a junior at the University of Louisville, and she's read Wes' book. She will be leading the book discussions with incoming freshmen. Welcome to you.

SIRENA WORTH: Hello.

ROBERTS: Oh, Sirena...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: ...I understand you're losing your voice. So we won't keep you on the air too long. What lessons did you learn from "The Other Wes Moore" that you think would have helped you during your freshman year?

WORTH: One of the biggest things - I think one of the main themes that I pulled from the book is about expectations, and I think that a lot of freshmen come in and they either have, you know, expectations coming in from their parents or expectations coming in that they set personally. And I think in the book that you really, really see the impact that expectations can have not only in life but specifically, like, how they can apply it towards their education. And so I think that having read this, if I read it before my freshman year, I think I would have recognized the importance of that even more. So I think that's something that a lot of the freshmen can relate to in terms of expectations, and so I think that that's a really, really important theme that they'll get a lot out of.

ROBERTS: And, Sirena, when you moderate these conversations among incoming first-years, have most people read the book? Are they into it?

WORTH: Yeah. I was an orientation leader this summer, and the students actually had the opportunity to purchase the book at orientation. So many of my students (unintelligible) bringing it back to the table at lunch, and I mean, all I could do is rave about it. I think it's an excellent book, an easy read too. And so I think that - and although I communicated with them over the summer, so many of them were reading it and really, really loving it. And I think that it's because it is so relatable, like even if you're not relating to "One Wes" or "The Other Wes," like there's something in the air that they can pull from, which is, you know, ideal for a book in common.

ROBERTS: All right. Sirena, I'm going to let you go and go get a cup of hot tea or something...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: ...or at least a cough drop. Sirena Worth joined us from the University of Louisville. Thank you so much for your time.

WORTH: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Still with us is the author, Wes Moore. His book, "The Other Wes Moore," is featured on several freshman common read lists for fall 2011. Wes Moore, why do you think so many schools have chosen your book?

MOORE: Well, first I'd say I'm just so humbled that so many schools have picked it. But I think there's, you know, and Sirena alluded to, I think whether or not you - you know, relate - whether you're relating to one Wes or the other Wes, I think there's pieces of both lives that you not only relate to in your own life but also other people around you, that you see how these small decisions make big impacts on all our lives. And I think that's something that that, you know, I was really thankful that the students really picked up on.

And also the importance of being involved in the lives of other people and how sometimes the smallest interactions and the, you know, just the smallest conversations can sometimes make all the difference between which direction someone goes into.

ROBERTS: And we should tell - for our audience who hasn't read it, the book "The Other Wes Moore" is your story just as you were getting coverage for having won a Rhodes scholarship. And a lot of your successes, there was another person in your neighborhood with the same name who was getting written up for his crimes.

MOORE: That's right.

ROBERTS: And your lives went in radically different directions even though they started in a pretty similar way.

MOORE: That's right. You know, how I first learned about Wes was there were wanted posters in my neighborhood. The police were looking for him and wanted in connection with the murder of a police officer. And the more I learned about this tragic crime and what happened and the more I learned about Wes, the more I realized how much more we had in common than just our names. The fact that we were, you know, in the same - living in the same neighborhood, the fact that we both grew up in single-parent households and we both had academic and disciplinary shovels growing up. We were around the same age.

And so I started thinking to myself, so how does this happened? How do you get two kids from similar backgrounds and similar circumstances who - as I'm getting ready to head 3,000 miles away from home on a scholarship, he's getting ready to head 25 miles away from home to a maximum security facility for the rest of his life, and so I ended up reaching out to him. This is awhile ago, well before even the idea of a book came about. And really, what the book is it's an evolution of these two lives and what eventually happened that can happen that causes this split.

ROBERTS: And let's ask our audience. If you've read "The Other Wes Moore," what lessons do you think it has for a freshmen read context? The number is 800-989-8255. If you haven't read, what suggestions do you have as a - something that would make a good freshmen read book: the idea of an entire incoming class reading a book together and then talking about it when they get to campus together? You can send us an email, talk@npr.org.

Did you have a freshmen read when you went to Hopkins?

MOORE: You know, it's interesting, I didn't. And when I first started hearing that, you know, these - you know, dozens of schools are picking the book as a freshmen read, I remember asking my publisher, so what's a freshmen read?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: Yes.

MOORE: And he explained it, like that's when all the freshmen, you know, will pick a book and do something with it and then they'll have a Q&A with the author, et cetera. And it's interesting because when I first started hearing about these requests, I immediately thought to myself, you know, it's great. And, of course, I'll go do a Q&A with the students and that's fantastic.

But the intent of the book is that I didn't want people simply to pick it up and throw it off to the side. I wanted people to see this is a much larger call to action. And so one of the things we've incorporated into the University of the Louisville, as Sirena was alluding to, and also other schools, is that for schools to pick the book up as a freshmen year, I'll obviously go visit, (unintelligible) with the students.

But in the addition to that, we're doing service projects around the country with all the individual schools. And each one of them are individual and tailored to the demographic that the school finds itself in. So some people are focusing on education. One school is focusing on juvenile justice. One school is focusing on immigration issues. But all of them are doing a larger service project with their freshmen class. And I've been so inspired because that really is the larger intent and purpose of the book.

So to see people not only entering school having read it and have that common bond of reading a book, but then also knowing that they're going to make a demonstrable difference in their college campus and in their community around it has been really inspiring and heartening as well.

ROBERTS: Do you think that's one of the reasons so many schools have chosen it, is because there is, sort of a what can I do about call to action part?

MOORE: You know, I believe so, because, you know, one thing I've heard is that it's something that's relatively unique. You know, they were saying that the - one of the books they heard about that had tried to add a service component to it as well. Because I think so - for so many of these students who are coming into college, they know how lucky they are.

They know, you know, at a time like now in particular, to have an opportunity to attend a college university is just an extraordinary honor. And it means a lot of people have sacrificed and worked on your behalf, and that the collegiate experience can't simply be about what are you learning? But it also needs to be about what are you giving? And what is the sacrifice that you're willing to make in order to help make the lives of others better? And so that's something I think that the people really have been attracted to about this story and about this book, and why I'm just so blessed that so many people have picked it up and try to answer that call to action.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Wanda(ph) in Fort Myers in Florida. Wanda, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

WANDA: Thank you. Just very quickly. I just want to tell Mr. Moore that I appreciate him writing this book so much. I have a 12-year-old son that I purchased the book for just so that he can see how the smallest decision can make such, you know, an impact in our lives, whether he go the right way or the wrong way. And he's one of the (unintelligible) from the book and I just called in to say thank you for it because he has really grasped the fact that his decisions right now can shape the course of his life, and so many children do not understand that. And I think - and I just want to say thank you. I just want to say you did great.

ROBERTS: Wanda, thank you so much for your call.

MOORE: Bless you. Thank you. That means so much to me, it really does. And I've been - really have been just so humbled by, you know, the amount of parents and teachers and even students who have said, you know, how they've used - how they use the book in this - in their classrooms or how they're using the book inside of their homes.

You know, we received a letter - received thousands of letters - received a letter from a young man in Chapin, South Carolina, who got into a fight when he was in school, and then he got arrested for this fight. And he was sitting inside of detention, of baby booking, which is the juvenile detention center, and someone came up to him and says, you really need to read this book. And he said, I'm not reading that book. And - but he said, when the person turned around, he started flipping through the book. And when he got out, he actually wrote me a note and he said to me, you know, this is the first book that I've read cover to cover. And for the first time, I'm actually really thinking about the type of man that I want to - that I'm trying to become, and the person that I want to be for my family.

And when you hear those kind of stories, when you hear, you know, like what Wanda was saying, it just makes you know that, you know, hopefully, that not only was this process worthwhile but that the larger intent of the entire process is hopefully, hopefully coming to fruition. So it means the world to me.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Tara(ph) in Warner Robins, Georgia. Welcome to the TALK OF THE NATION, Tara.

TARA: Hi. Thanks for having me on.

ROBERTS: Sure.

TARA: I wanted to tell Wes I appreciate what he wrote. I appreciate the story behind it. And I think I speak for a lot of high school teachers who wish that this a book that we could introduce to high school students because they are still on the cusp of making the decision of what path they want to walk down as adult. And to give them this story will really, you know, give them the opportunity just like you were saying about kids, once they get to college, they're - a lot of them are lucky enough to just have made it to 10th grade. And so, where they go from there is determining, you know, what the rest of their lives is going to be like. And I just think it's a very powerful book, and I wish it was something that we could introduce to high school students.

MOORE: Bless you.

ROBERTS: Tara, thanks for your call.

MOORE: Yeah, thank you so much, Tara. And, you know, it's amazing because we have actually seen, you know, high schools that have been incorporating this as well. And it really goes back to, I think, you know, something that Sirena touched on as well, which I think Tara pointed to, is - you know, I remember there was actually a scene in the book when Wes and I are talking and I asked him, so do you think that we're products of our environment? We were talking about Baltimore. And he said to me - he said back to me, he said, actually, I think we're products of our expectations.

And I thought to myself, he's absolutely right, that we weren't products of our environments. We're products of our expectations. And it's so important that, you know, that these students, you know, these, you know, men and women, young boys, young girls, whether they be high school or college, you know, really see the importance of that, that the expectation that you have for yourself really matters because we are a nation of self-fulfilling prophecies. And so what we envision and how we're willing to work at it really can make all the differences to where we end up.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. My guest is Wes Moore. He is the author of "The Other Wes Moore," which is a chosen freshman common read for several colleges and universities this fall, including Marquette, Virginia Commonwealth University and others.

And, you know, you - the last caller was talking about the need for some high school students to get a little sense of direction while they're making some of these decisions. And your story includes trying to run away from military school...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: ...several times until you finally decided to stop fighting it and learn from it. And isn't interesting to think that your book could be the thing that makes another kid make a decision like that? What was it for you?

MOORE: You know, it's interesting because there were quite a few things that I think, you know, tried to make the difference, even going back to the earlier theme that we're talking about, was how the small things really make a big difference.

You know, I remember the first time that I really got into reading. I hated reading. And my mother actually tricked me into reading by - because she knew I love - I hated reading and I loved basketball. So she said - one day she said, I'm going to get him a basketball book and just to see if he gets into that at all. And I read a book called "Fab Five" by Mitch Albom that I literally read in probably about a day and a half. And she had never seen me read anything like that. And I couldn't stop talking about the characters and about Chris Webber and Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose and all these players from the University of Michigan basketball team.

And then, what she said, you know, I think I might be on to something. And so then she started to continue to give me these sports books. And that really developed my love of reading.

I remember when I was in military school, my love of leadership really drove in because I had so much respect and admiration for so many kids in the neighborhood that quite honestly I had no business learning anything from. And then when I got sent to military school after the fifth time I tried to run away, I saw one guy there who was - you know, I didn't know who he was. He never said a word to me. But when he walked in front of this company and I saw the whole company crack to attention, and then - and I realized that this guy was in charge, and I saw the amount of respect that they had for him, how my definition of respect really completely changed almost at the same moment that those 150 cadets that cracked their feet to attention as he walked in front of them.

So there were so many little moments that I think just compounded that eventually led me to have a complete shift in how I thought about the world and my role in it.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Abigail(ph) in Baltimore. Abigail, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ABIGAIL: Hi. Mr. Moore, I'm a junior at Goucher College and I'm going to be leading a book discussion on "The Other Wes Moore" before your lecture.

MOORE: Yes.

ABIGAIL: And I'm so glad that this book is our freshman reading assignment. I'm from Baltimore, and I've never really felt that people came to Goucher understanding much about our local community. I really hope that this book will help people understand more about where they're going to live for the next four years, where they're going to get jobs and do service and live their lives. I actually went to the same high school as the other Mr. Moore, Perry Hall High School, and...

MOORE: Yes.

ABIGAIL: ...I'm just so grateful that people are going to start to understand what growing up here is like. And I'm really looking forward to your lecture.

MOORE: Well, thank you so. And I'm looking - and please, when I get down - I'm getting down, I think, about two weeks. And please, I would love to get a chance to connect in person, and that really means a lot that you said that because I think what happens so many times on college campuses and whether they be, you know, in Baltimore, all over the country, is sometime the college campus can feel isolate from the environment and isolated from the community where we put these walls or these gates up around the college campus, and then tell students, you know, proceed with caution as you leave those gates.

You know, we have to understand that we're all one community. And the fact is, every single student inside of those college campuses can make a real contribution as to what type of community that we live in. You know, we're all extraordinarily blessed, and you all are so amazingly gifted. And those are the type of things that I want people to understand, is that we don't live on an island here. We all have a vested interest in the future, of what's happening around us. And all of us have a real stake and can actually make a real difference as long as we choose to do that. So that really means a lot to me, particularly that the fact that you're a home girl down in Baltimore. And I really look forward to meeting you in person.

ROBERTS: It's also - it's nice to have a book set in the town you're going to if you're not from there. We have, you know, an email from Claire(ph) who says, my freshman year at Santa Clara, we read Khaled Hosseini's "The Kite Runner."

MOORE: Mm-hmm.

ROBERTS: Dr. Hosseini was a Santa Clara graduate and the book was partially set in the San Jose area, which was a great introduction to the culturally diverse city. To tie it all together, Dr. Hosseini was our commencement speaker. So it was really a great culmination of four years of college.

MOORE: It's so true. And it's funny, you know, when I speak to a lot of Baltimoreans about the book and you hear them say things like, oh, you're talking about the Alameda or you're talking about the Perry Hall High School or you're talking about the McCulloh Homes. You know, they know the streets, they know the area, which is, you know, I think in many ways kind of that added bonus and that added boost to help people get through it and understand the larger point.

ROBERTS: And then there is Mike who says St. John's College in Annapolis in Santa Fe have been having all freshmen read the "Iliad" of Homer and discussing it...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: ...for at least 30 years. No more relevant book required.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: And we have to leave it there. Wes Moore is the author of "The Other Wes Moore." He joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you so much.

MOORE: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

ROBERTS: Tomorrow, join Ira Flatow on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY for a look at the naturalists and the real spider behind "Charlotte's Web." And join me here back on Monday. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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