Uniting for 'Outcasts'

Summer Scholars program looks for volunteers from faculty and staff

3/30/2010 - By: John Trent

Planning for the 2010 Summer Scholars book program is kicking into high gear. The book for the freshman summer reading program has been chosen, and the program is making a campus-wide call for volunteers.

Up to 2,500 incoming freshmen are expected to participate in the fourth-year program, which this summer will feature the Warren St. John book, “Outcasts United: An American Town, A Refugee Team and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference.”

Core Curriculum Director Paul Neill, who is serving as the program’s administrator, estimates that about 100 faculty and staff volunteers will be needed to serve as discussion group facilitators. This year’s organizing committee is asking volunteers to sign up as a discussion leader. Details about the book and a faculty orientation session, scheduled for mid-April, will also be available on the website.

For those who cannot attend the volunteer orientation in person in April, an audio feed will be made available. In addition, the volunteer orientation will be archived for those who can’t log on or attend.

This year’s book selection, “Outcasts United,” springs from a nomination to the Summer Scholars review committee from Dick Davies, a longtime University of Nevada, Reno professor of history.

Davies estimates that over the past six years, he has sent a “handful” of emails to journalist and author  St. John.

In addition to St. John’s excellent reportage and writing – Davies was so captivated by St. John’s first book, “Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer:  A Road Trip into the Heart of Fan Mania,” that he has given it a permanent spot in his senior-level sports history course as required reading – Davies has always had the feeling that St. John would be an excellent public speaker, the type of friendly, funny, engaging and insightful person that could just as easily be a great dinner guest.

“He’s absolutely funny, and a very talented writer,” Davies said recently, recalling one email exchange where St. John sent a special message to Davies’ sports history class, wondering for those “in the back row … are you going to nail Davies on ‘Rate Your Faculty Prof.com?’”

“He writes so well, and he has such great insight into the people he chooses to write about,” Davies added.

All members of the Class of 2014 will receive a copy of the book and a study guide during June’s orientation sessions. They will then read the book over the summer, and, when they arrive on campus, break into discussion groups led by faculty and staff volunteers on Friday, Aug. 20. A program of related activities is being designed for the fall, and will climax when St. John visits campus in mid-November for a presentation of “Outcasts United,” followed by a book signing.

Davies, a Foundation Professor who has himself written several critically well-received sports-oriented books, including “Sports in American Life: A History,” said readers will like “Outcasts,” a 2009 book which tells the story of a refugee soccer team in Clarkston, Ga., coached by an American-educated Jordanian woman.

“There are all sorts of themes in the book,” Davies said. “Immigration, racism, assimilation, the fact that this is a Muslim woman coach and most of the boys didn’t want to play for a woman, gender issues.

“The book turns immigration in this country on its head. St. John looks at it from the point of view of the immigrant rather than the United States responding to the issue. These are people coming from Somalia and Bangladesh and Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Neill said the book was chosen from five finalists. The selection committee looked at several factors, including input from a campus-wide survey, availability of author for a campus presentation in the fall, quality of the book, and how familiar students might be with the work.

“It gives our freshman an opportunity to make an immediate connection with our campus,” Neill said of why faculty and staff participation is considered such a critical part of the program’s success. “The book is a wonderful choice. There’s a great currency to the book. It raises a lot of issues for people on both sides of the political divide.”

Added Davies: “These are not Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative, issues. These are human issues.”

Neill is hoping that in addition to the Summer Scholars Program, faculty in general might consider using the book, or themes in the book, in their own courses during the fall semester.

“I’m looking for suggestions from our faculty on how this could be done,” Neill said. “We have a lot of creative people on our campus, and the themes in this book seem to coincide nicely with many of the courses we teach on campus.”

In reading “Outcasts United,” it’s easy to see why Neill would think this would be so. In addition to the major thematic undercurrents of the book, St. John’s writing is detail-rich and character-driven. The details can be “stunning,” Davies said.

“I was stunned by the hurdles that the immigrants in the book had to face,” Davies said. “I was stunned by how the parents in immigrant families had to go to work at the airport in Atlanta, cleaning toilets, and the kids were left alone. And the kids would have to face such great challenges: white cops, all sorts of gangs, you name it.”

Neill said that “Outcasts” was the only book in the final five that was nominated by a faculty member. Davies, for his part, said that when he learned “Outcasts” was chosen, he emailed St. John congratulating him. St. John replied that he was happy to hear the news, and that over the past year, several other universities in the country had adopted his book for programs similar to the Summer Scholars Program.

“He’s really hit the jackpot with this book,” Davies said.

So, too, it seems has the Nevada campus with the selection of “Outcasts United.”

(Editor’s note: To contact Paul Neill with ideas on how to further integrate “Outcasts United” into the coming semester’s curriculum, or to find out about April’s orientation and August’s discussion event, email him at paul@unr.edu.)


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