December 17, 2010 — This winter break, while many of her fellow University of Virginia students are sleeping in or catching up on missed episodes of a favorite TV show, Shravya Covella is setting aside time to read Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale."
When she returns to school in January, she has an appointment to discuss the book with Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy professor Sophie Trawalter and a small group of her fellow students.
Covella, a first-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences, is participating in Professor Picks, a program that "connects new students with faculty members through enriching conversation about a professor's chosen book," explained Jenny Eaton, a fourth-year McIntire School of Commerce student from Chesapeake who also serves as the Residence Life program's coordinator for council leadership development. The Residence Life office sponsors the Professor Picks program.
Though the program is now in its eighth year, this is the first year that it will be overseen and implemented by an undergraduate student, Eaton explained. In previous years Professor Picks had been coordinated by a graduate student.
Before the break, participating first-year and transfer students are supplied with a free copy of their assigned book. Early in the spring semester, they will meet with their professor in small groups to discuss what they have read. The meeting will be catered by Eppie's, a local restaurant/business specializing in comfort food.
Interested students were asked to sign up at the end of fall semester after reviewing the list of participating professors. Eaton sent out e-mails to each department head, as well as resident advisers, asking for nominations. Each professor was sent a personal invitation to the program, asking them what book they might like to read and what day they would like to meet.
As a result, the program features a diverse group of professors reading a wealth of literature, both fiction and nonfiction. Commerce professor Brad Brown will be leading a discussion on "Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Education in Afghanistan and Pakistan," by Greg Mortenson, while engineering professor Dana Elzey will lead a group on Somerset Maugham's "The Razor's Edge," which tells the story of an American fighter pilot and his struggle to adjust to civilian life after World War I. Nineteen professors and more than 200 students will participate this year.
"It's a great opportunity for transfer and first-year students to meet a professor that they wouldn't ordinarily," Eaton explained.
"I thought it was a good opportunity to establish a relationship with someone you will be seeing for four years," Collier said. He will be reading Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," the choice of Dean of Students Allen Groves.
Collier has never read the book, and said he is excited to get the opportunity to do so. Furthermore, he said that reading a novel will be "a nice break from textbooks." As he is considering an economics major, Collier said he does not spend a lot of time reading novels.
Covella, from Loudoun County, said she is excited to make new friends through the program. She thinks that the seminar-style environment will be particularly rewarding for first-year students, who often take larger, lecture-based classes.
"I just like to meet new people," she said. "And I like to have intellectual conversations. It's interesting to hear what other people think."
She added that she is particularly excited to read "The Handmaid's Tale" because of its feminist message.
"I've heard a lot about it," she said. "I'm kind of a feminist and it has a reputation as being a feminist book."
In particular, Covella was conscious of spending her free time wisely over break.
"I knew I had all this time, so I wanted to do something productive," she added.
Eaton did not participate in Professor Picks during her first year at U.Va., but sat in on a few sessions last year. She said she was very impressed with the content of the discussions.
"It's another way of interacting with a professor," she said, "rather than just through class."