Books to get students excited about college?
April 30, 2016 10:06 AM   Subscribe

Over the summer, I meet with students who are about to start college. This year, I would like to email them a list of novels about college that they can read while they're waiting to start. I'm looking for fun books, not study guides or non-fiction tomes about the perils of binge-drinking. Ideally, I would like books that give them some sense of what college in the US is like, but in a format that won't feel like homework.

The book that made me think about this was Fangirl, which takes place during a young woman's first year at the University of Nebraska. It has several things going for it: it's a fun read, it's about a public university, it has a contemporary setting, and the protagonist has a somewhat difficult transition to college, which is something that I would like to normalize for my students.

I'm pretty specifically not looking for books about kids at elite private universities, because that's not an experience that is going to resonate with my students. I would really like to list books that have diverse protagonists in terms of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, etc. Fantasy or sci-fi are fine, but the college aspects should be relatively realistic. (It's fine by me if the students major in time-travel, for instance, but their issues with their classes and roommates should still be realistically rendered.) Graphic novels are fine. Honestly, anything is fine, as long as it realistically depicts contemporary life for undergrads at not-super-elite institutions of higher learning. I probably want to avoid anything that is too tragic or will make students think that they're going to fail at college, but it's fine if books depict challenging aspects of college life.

I'm primarily looking for fiction, but if you know of non-fiction books that you think would be terrific for incoming fresh-people, feel free to include them. Most of these students are coming straight from high school and are 17 to 19 years old. They're pretty diverse in terms of ethnic/racial, class, and urban/suburban/ rural background, and a fair number of them are first-generation college students.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious to Education (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The Magicians by Lev Grossman?
posted by infinitewindow at 10:25 AM on April 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

John Allison's Giant Days (British)
Americanah (might not be appropriate for all or most 17 year olds)
Skippy Dies (also British and it's about high schoolers at a boarding school)
posted by katieanne at 10:46 AM on April 30, 2016

It's a farce with science-fiction elements, but Neal Stephenson's first novel The Big U (published 1984) gives a pretty good sense of life at a big state university mixed among its comic exaggeration. There's role-playing gamers in the steam tunnels, civil war between the dorms, and a clear-eyed depiction of how the "fraternity shenanigans," often celebrated in pop culture, amount to bullying and rape. The narrator is a black professor, and the two main characters are a queer woman and a first-generation student (who's likely on the autism spectrum). It actually made me look forward to college life, because I felt like I'd been warned what to avoid and told what to seek out.

(Most "academic" novels are useless for undergrads, because they're about the lives and research of faculty members and graduate students, with college students appearing occasionally as naïve outsiders.)
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 1:24 PM on April 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: The Magicians is a good suggestion for a book about college in general, but it isn't exactly right for my purposes, because Brakebills is too small and elite. Think Rutgers, not Bennington. Giant Days is great: it's British, but I think it translates pretty well. I need to read Americanah and The Big U, but those are definite possibilities.

I'm having an easier time coming up with books about women than men, so anything with a male protagonist would be super appreciated!
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:04 PM on April 30, 2016

Would "Oscar Wao" fit? I can't remember if there's enough about Oscar & Yunior's time at Rutgers. "Art of Fielding," maybe had some relatable issues with college age anxiety, depression, sexuality, and relationships, but the fake Westish College was small and private (not sure how elite), so maybe yes, maybe no?
posted by .kobayashi. at 3:29 PM on April 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ah, you beat me to it -- I came here to recommend Fangirl! One of the things I liked best about the book was how well the author captured what freshman year feels like. Everything is new and unfamiliar, and it's overwhelming, but you will find awesome people and settle in to have a great time. I think I would have appreciated reading that before going to college.
posted by kayram at 4:49 PM on April 30, 2016

Americanah is amazing for international students - it's the first piece of media I'd ever seen describe the international student experience, and so true to life too. So if you have any students coming from or going abroad, that would be my main recommendation.
posted by divabat at 8:02 PM on April 30, 2016

This one may be a little out of left field, but the webcomic Dumbing of Age is about a group of freshmen girls (and some associated boys) at Indiana University.
posted by bettafish at 8:34 PM on April 30, 2016

Maybe Joyce Carol Oates - I'll Take You There
posted by hepta at 9:39 PM on April 30, 2016

Norwegian Wood is set in a different time and place (and not particularly optimistic about college as an institution) but it's from a decidedly male perspective and quite engaging.
posted by eotvos at 10:38 PM on April 30, 2016

Oooh, seconding The Big U.
posted by SisterHavana at 12:34 AM on May 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Pamela Dean's Tam Lin is probably too elite/1970s for your project, but I thought it really captured the "staying up too late talking about big issues" feeling of college.

John Crowley's The Translator is also historical (1950s) but has sections at an unnamed large Midwestern state university that felt accurate to me.
posted by nonane at 6:49 PM on May 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

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