Common Reading Program

Summer Assignments

Message to New First-Year StudentsThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks cover

You will receive a copy of Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks during your Advising and Registration Day. You are expected to read the book during the summer and bring the book with you to campus in the fall semester.

There will be book events at New Student Orientation on August 26. In addition to the book being discussed in small groups at New Student Orientation, over half of new students will use the book in one or more courses.

Below, please find some questions and material to support you in your exploration of the book during your summer reading experience and to help hone your critical reading skills.

“Reading is thinking. It is an active process of identifying important ideas and comparing, evaluating and applying them.” Kathleen McWhorter, Reading Across the Disciplines (2002)

Questions for before you read: Activate prior knowledge

  • How do you think education has impacted your life? What do you think further education will do?
  • Have you experienced a moment in your life that sparked your curiosity to learn more about a person, place or thing?
  • While being treated for a medical condition, have you or someone you've known felt afraid or vulnerable? Did you feel like you could ask questions about what was going on?
  • If you knew you could help advance medical research, would you be willing to donate some of your tissues and cells to researchers? Would you feel like you should be paid? How would you feel if you knew someone else was making money from your donation?
  • Have you ever felt like you were treated differently or unfairly by doctors or other medical staff? If so, did you do anything about it?
  • Do you know the benefits in your own life resulting from HeLa cells?

While you read: Focus on values and look for an interpretation

Mark passages or scenes from the book which:

  • you identified with
  • challenged you
  • surprised you
  • you enjoyed

Literature expresses meaning and creates feelings and impressions. Make note of these passages you noticed while you are reading. Think about how you might describe these scenes or talk about them with other students at New Student Orientation.

Why is this reading important?

Questions for after you read: Reflect on what you read

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks discussed many important issues: bioethics, racism, science, faith, ethics in journalism, and more. Which themes stand out for you? Why?
  • In your opinion, was it unethical for researchers to take and profit from Henrietta’s cells without her permission? Why? Why not?
  • What do you think it more important a person’s personal rights over their own tissue, or contributing to science and research for the benefit of all humankind?
  • Have you ever experienced any kind of racism or discrimination? Do you think experiencing an act of discrimination changes how you interact with others who are different from you?
  • What are some of the important discoveries made due to HeLa cells?
  • How is Rebecca Skloot's own life journey relevant to your understanding of Henrietta's story? What do you think sparked her curiosity for Henrietta Lacks? Have you experienced something like this in your own life or seen it in one of your friends or family members?
  • Deborah says in the book, "Education is everything. If I'd had more of it, maybe this whole thing about my mother wouldn't have been so hard." What do you think she means by this? Does this apply or relate to your own life in any way?