‘Henrietta Lacks’ chosen for One Book program

When Glenda Hensley, director of Western Carolina University’s First Year Experience, first announced that “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot was chosen for this year’s One Book Program, the reaction she received was memorable.

“I was walking across campus and, literally, I got some high fives from faculty in the health sciences,” Hensley said.

The One Book Program is heading into its fourth year. Its mission is to engage first-year students, as well as the campus community, in a common intellectual experience that promotes critical thinking and interdisciplinary conversation. A committee comprised of representatives from across the university convenes each August to nominate books, discuss titles and ultimately make a final selection by the first week in January.

The chosen book is distributed (during summer orientation) to all first-year students who are then instructed to read the book before fall semester begins. It is a requirement for all students enrolled in a first-year transition course.

“We want students to have a way to build community early on,” Hensley said. “And as early as they start to build community, we would like for them to think about community as an intellectual activity, as well as a social activity. We want the involvement with the book to help them begin to set high standards for their academic performance.

“We want them thinking about how to engage with each other on serious topics and discussions with respect and begin to understand that they’re not always going to agree with each other. We want them to understand that in the academic world, an argument is not a mean-spirited disagreement, but an argument is making a point based in fact and then learning how to do the research to back up their ideas,” she said.

One of the attractive aspects to this year’s book is its interdisciplinary potential, Hensley said. The committee’s goal is to choose a book that appeals to a broad range of academic disciplines so that more faculty are interested in integrating it into their course work.

Hensley also said the committee looks for books in which students can find relevance within the themes of the book, which makes it a more significant learning experience.

“This book has several themes that are timely, in terms of what’s going on in contemporary news – equity, gender divide, race divide, all layers,” Hensley said. “It touches on a lot of really important topics that certainly are relevant to all of our students. It’s not hard for them to grasp why the story matters.”

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is a true story about a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951 by scientists who referred to her as HeLa. Those cells never died. They launched a medical revolution and a multimillion dollar industry. More than 20 years later, Lacks’ children found out and their lives would never be the same.

“For the history students, it’s imbued with deep history,” Hensley said. “For the health sciences students, clearly there’s a fit there, as well as social science. It really does have an incredibly broad appeal, and it’s also accessible.”

Several One Book Program events will be held throughout the semester:

Reading Roundtable: A peer roundtable book discussion, facilitated by Honors College students, exploring topics of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Wednesday, Sept. 20, 4:30 to 6 p.m., Blue Ridge Conference Room.

One Book Film Screening: The Oprah Winfrey-starring HBO film version of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” will be shown in the A.K. Hinds University Center theater Monday, Oct. 2, at 4:30 p.m., 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m., and Tuesday, Oct. 3, at 4:30 p.m., 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. There will be open seating with no reservations. The trailer can be seen HERE.

Panel Discussion Series: Faculty-facilitated discussions to examine the book’s themes and topics.

  • Leadership: Thursday, Oct. 5, 3:30 to 4:30 p.m., Blue Ridge Conference Room A.
  • Health Disparities and Cultural Humility: Tuesday, Oct. 10, noon to 1 p.m., Blue Ridge Conference Room A.
  • Science and Technology: Wednesday, Oct. 11, 4 to 5 p.m., Blue Ridge Conference Room A.
  • TBA: Wednesday, Oct. 25, 4 to 5 p.m., Blue Ridge Conference Room A.
  • Ethics: Thursday, Nov. 2, noon to 1 p.m., Blue Ridge Conference Room A.