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August 24, 2007
Moments such as the one experienced in the quiet of Room 316 in the Laxalt Mineral Engineering Building on Thursday afternoon were what the organizers of the Class of 2011 Summer Scholars Book Project had in mind.
Paul Neill, director of the Core Curriculum and one of the University's most distinguished professors, had led the gathering of 25 first-year and freshmen students for the better part of a half hour. The group discussed the central themes and events of the book, "Sweet Promised Land," written by Nevada's great author, Robert Laxalt, in 1957.
During the summer, all 2,500 members of the University's freshmen class had been requested to read "Sweet Promised Land" prior to Thursday's orientation. One hundred and twenty-four campus personnel, consisting of faculty, staff and administration, had volunteered to lead the hour-long discussion groups.
And as Neill demonstrated when he shared with the class his own experience—a truly American experience in that he came to the United States more than 20 years ago from his native Northern Ireland to make a living teaching physics—the 50-year-old book still resonates.
Neill's words were spurred when one of the students in the discussion group mentioned that the book's protagonist, Dominique Laxalt, "had lived too much in America to be able to go back" to his homeland in the Basque country of the Pyrenees Mountains.
"I'm from Belfast in Northern Ireland," Neill said, his voice steady and reassuring. Neill is an attentive man, a man who uses words not as encumbrances, not as ways to divide, but as a way to embrace knowledge and understanding. He looked out at the class with a quiet and kindly intimacy, sharing something important. "I've been here (in America) for 20 years, and in that time Ireland has changed dramatically and I still have memories of the way things used to be. It's hard when you think of the past, and the way things were, but the present has moved them on for you.
"I have to try very hard not to think that way."
Then Neill pointed around the room: "I think after all these years I've realized that this is home for me. Reno is my home."
The themes of family, of home, of immigration, of old world and new world attitudes, and many others were explored in settings such as the classroom that Neill directed Thursday. The idea was to give new students their first taste of what it meant to be a scholar at the University of Nevada, and judging by their comments afterward, the discussion groups were a success.
Shane Collins, 21, of Truckee, Calif., a first-year Nevada student who is a member of the Wolf Pack ski team, said he would always remember the character of Dominique Laxalt, an aging sheepherder who returned to the land of his fathers in the Pyrenees only to realize that his true home, in the form of his wife and family and the solitude of the Sierra, was in Nevada.
"The same kind of situations that the old man went through in the book can kind of come back to everybody, as far as growing up and then looking back on your past and realizing that your home isn't exactly what it used to be," said Collins, who hopes to earn a degree in the area of sports science or business. "That you move on, that life moves on. It's good to reflect on that."
Paige Miller, 18, a freshman from Carson City who plans to major in nursing, said she found the book timely—in ways that one may not first imagine.
"It's a good book about growing up... that things change," she said. "It's nice because now that we're going to college, we're seeing that everything is so drastically different from what our lives have been like. And that's the way it was for Dominique in the book, for him to go back to the Basque land and everything seemed so different for him.
"It was a nice way to see how someone else dealt with the transition."
For Neill, Laxalt's writing style was simple, yet direct and meaningful. He said while he read the book earlier this summer—and again on Thursday, as he discussed it with the class—he couldn't help but think of his own life, his own experience as a young man coming to America, and how America has become his home.
"Part of that is because my visits to Northern Ireland over the 20 years were mostly focused on my parents," he said. "And so my parents, to a certain extent, were almost like the Sierra for Dominique, because I had this insular experience with my family.
"Just as the same way I suggested to the students that being a shepherd, although it's a very difficult and challenging life, there's a simplicity to it. Going back to Belfast and staying with my family and just spending time with them was a very simple, a very simplistic experience for me.
"And so I was never really forced to experience a change. In the same way that Dominique had some reticence and some apprehension about going back to the Basque land, now that my parents are no longer alive, and I don't have a family home to return to, I would probably have some apprehension about returning, too.
"There were a lot of things in that book that really resonated with the way I feel, and I think the students felt it, too."
Neill said he made it a point to try and engage all the students in his care on Thursday. To that end, he made sure to ask each of them at least one question. A few students hadn't read the book, yet Neill was undeterred. He asked still asked them a question, to tell him at least one thing they had learned from any of the day's orientation activities.
"Just asking questions is often the way I teach," he said. "I don't tell. I ask. That's the fun thing to do, because you often get answers you don't expect.
"I think what you saw here today was kind of a microcosm from what you would see on a first day of class. At first the students might seem threatened, or they might feel some apprehension for putting themselves out there expressing an opinion that others may not share. By the end, though, the students were growing quite comfortable in expressing and sharing their ideas."
"It was interesting to see everyone's thoughts on the book during our class," Collins said. "It was a good experiment. I think it was the first year they did it. If it makes everybody read a little more over the summer, and think a little about things like this, then it's a good thing."
At the end of the class, Neill gave each of the students his card, and noted that he has probably the easiest e-mail to remember at the University: firstname.lastname@example.org
Then he gathered a list of the students' e-mails, and promised that they would hear from him "from time to time" during the coming semester.
"And I do plan on staying in touch with them," Neill said. "They will get e-mails from me."
And with the e-mails, perhaps a sense that the students who participated in the discussion groups on Thursday were part of something bigger: the realization that the campus, like the Sierra to Dominique, like northern Nevada to Paul Neill, will become their home.