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First-Year Students Share a Novel and an Experience

A new part of matriculating in at Cornish, entering freshmen shared a moving novel as part of the First Year Reads program, then completed the experience on the streets of Seattle's International District.

Cornish is a college where collaboration and working across boundaries is at a premium, so a new program that allows freshmen in all departments to focus on a single book is a natural. The program, sponsored by the Humanities & Sciences Department, Admissions, Office of Student Life, Library Services, and Writing Center is called “First Year Reads,” and it brings together all first-year students in every department. The program, founded last year by Tanya Matthews, the then-First Year Coordinator, with departmental representatives from around the College, saw to it that every new student received a copy of the same book the summer before their matriculation at Cornish.

“Admissions sent a free copy of the book to all new first-year students over the summer,” writes Acting Provost Star Rush, “and some have shared they have been reading it with their families and on their own. The First-Year Reads program is meant to be a cornerstone of students’ transition to the intellectual and creative life of Cornish.”

The book that was chosen for this year is the New York Times bestseller Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a story set in Seattle in the days leading up to the internment of Japanese-Americans at the start of the United States’ involvement in World War II.  Taking place in the neighborhoods now known as the International District (the ID), it is centered on the budding romance between a Japanese-American girl and a Chinese-American boy. The novel is the work of Jamie Ford. Ford is a native Northwesterner who grew up in Seattle, Eureka, and Ashland, Oregon. His family name, Ford, was taken by his paternal great-grandfather, Min Chung, who emigrated to the US from China in the mid-1800s.

It was an easy decision. Ford’s book was already in use in a Cornish classroom, so it was a known and proven quantity. Assistant Professor of Humanities & Sciences Katherine Greenland Trelstad had been teaching with it since last year.  “It's an easy read and perfect for incoming freshman who are embarking on their own journeys of reinhabitation and cultural assimilation,” said Trelstad, a sociologist. “Because the story is set in Seattle—Ford even mentions Cornish—I'm able to weave place-based pedagogical practices into my lesson plans. I like to get students out into the community and this book helps me do just that.”

Faculty members used the book in their teaching in a number of ways. For example, Trelstad took her students to see and experience the locales mentioned in Ford’s book, including the hotel in the title, in whose basement one can still find the abandoned possessions of Japanese American families who stored them there before being sent to internment camps and never returned to reclaim them. “Students read and responded to the novel,” says Gala Bent, program leader of Foundations, “and also went on a field trip to the International District which included a rare tour of the Panama Hotel. They were asked to respond with discussion, writing, and drawing to process the Japanese Internment and its implications today.”

Also in their trip to the ID, professor Trelstad and her class went to Union Station, where some 7,000 people of Japanese ancestry were loaded up on trains and sent to internment camps in 1942. “This experience gave students a rich historical context of the community in which they live,” said Trelstad, “Then we all went out for lunch at Uwajimaya Asian Supermarket, because what's cultural experience without tasting the cuisine?” According to Trelstad, students have told her that coupling the text with field trips has helped them begin to understand “the powerful complexities of their identity, privilege and responsibility as citizen artists.”

On the itinerary, too, was the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. Back at Cornish, Visual Arts Librarian Bridget Nowlin, worked with the Wing Luke to curate a moving display in the glass case next to the Library. In it were some of the everyday objects created by the internees, a poignant assemblage of hand mirrors, dolls, fans, along with government documents, drawings made by internees internment camp life, and more.

Another example of the kinds of projects surrounding the program was the work of performance production student, Jeremiah Holt’. “Holt created an elaborate Instagram scavenger hunt for Student Life's Cornish Connection orientation program,” said Megan Smithling, Reference/Instruction Librarian, “in which students traveled to the International District to find historic markers and places mentioned in the book. They took photos of their orientation team in front of these various places and posted the pictures on Instagram tagged as #cornishreads. The work Jeremiah did on this project was amazing.”

The selection committee for First Year Reads is currently at work choosing the book for next year with an announcement of the title in the offing; so if you’re coming to Cornish next year, stay tuned.