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The Book All Freshmen Are Reading

September 23, 2019
by Mary Flegler

Finding identity in a new place

In the early 1930s, Gertrude Stein, Oakland-raised oracle of the Lost Generation, revisited her hometown. It was the trip that inspired her infamous and oft-contested line: “There is no there there.” Stein reportedly gazed upon the site where her house had once been, razed to make way for new developments. “That is what makes your identity,” Stein writes in her autobiography, “not a thing that exists but something you do or do not remember.”

In August 2019, roughly 9,000 freshmen and transfer students left their respective hometowns behind to make new lives for themselves in Berkeley, not far from Stein’s old neighborhood. Swallowed into Berkeley’s vast student population, they will sooner or later be confronted with big questions: Who was I back home—back there? Who will I be here?

“The program offers new students a chance to share something in a space that can feel fragmented—it’s a way to make a larger school feel more manageable.”

The journey of transformation can be alienating—which is where On The Same Page (OTSP) comes in.

Since 2007, OTSP has sought to foster connections between incoming students by providing a common intellectual experience—usually a book—along with myriad events and course offerings through which to explore it. Prior selections have included Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Stephen Hawking’s A Briefer History of Time, and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Past OTSP programs have also been organized around films (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), plays (Hamilton), and even topics like genetics; the 2010 OTSP, called “Bring Your Genes to Cal,” invited students, somewhat controversially, to submit their DNA for testing.

“The program offers new students a chance to share something in a space that can feel fragmented—it’s a way to make a larger school feel more manageable,” says Alix Schwartz, director of academic planning and leader of OTSP.

This year, program selectors (including professors and deans from multiple departments, with the participation of students) have chosen a book. There There is the highly acclaimed debut novel by Oakland native Tommy Orange.

Orange’s urban roots and Cheyenne and Arapaho heritage are at the heart of the novel, which primarily unfolds in the Bay Area. The story features multiple narrative perspectives, which all come together at a powwow in the Oakland Coliseum. In this way, the book is, arguably, an ideal text for incoming students who, like the characters in the book, grapple with what identity and community mean in a new context.

Not all of OTSP’s offerings are strictly academic; this year’s program, for example, will include a rock concert featuring clips from the documentary Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World. Though the primary audience is incoming students, all events are open to the public.

While the students come to grips with their new homes and unpack the novel with new friends, the hope is that they’ll find some comfort in Orange’s words, which hint that the space between there and here may not be so big after all: “An Urban Indian belongs to the city, and cities belong to the earth…. Nothing is original, everything comes from something that came before, which was once nothing … being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.”

Mary Flegler is a freelance writer and blogger making great use of her English degree, thank you very much.

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