What First-Years Read in 2021

This fall, a new cohort of students arrives on Phi Beta Kappa’s 293 chapter campuses for the first time. While the new academic year brings excitement and energy to quads and classrooms across the country, new and returning students will again face uncertain terrain. Common reading, and the critical discussion that comes with engaging with rich texts, can help first year students forge connections despite the barriers created by the pandemic.

Below is a selection of first year common reading choices for the Class of 2025 from Phi Beta Kappa chapter campuses. These works, from graphic novels to memoirs to scientific nonfiction books, showcase the diverse voices who will inspire new students at the beginning of their arts and sciences journeys.

Science and Math

All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson

This collection of essays and poetry highlights the work of women scientists, artists, teachers, and activists across generations, geographies, and race to advance a nuanced and solutions-oriented conversation on the climate crisis.


Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Indigenous botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer pairs science with Indigenous principles and storytelling to formulate new ecological methods and to advocate for a renewed connection between human beings and nature.


The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee

Using economic and sociological research, McGhee illuminates the ways in which systemic racism and inequality may targets some but actually works against the American economy and all of its people.


Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil

A former Wall Street quant sounds an alarm on mathematical modeling—a pervasive new force in society that threatens to undermine democracy and widen inequality.

Memoirs and Biography

Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom

This collection of essays deftly blends the personal with the political to hold a magnifying glass to issues of race, gender, and capitalism.


What the Eyes Don't See by Mona Hanna-Attisha

An account of the Flint water crises by the pediatrician that discovered bureaucratic indifference to the exposure of children to lead and the citizen action that followed to fight for justice and safe drinking water for their commmunity.


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Taken without her knowledge, the cells of a black tobacco farmer named Henrietta Lacks became vital to the development of the Polio vaccine and other innumerable scientific advances. This biography traces the legacy of this theft and its continued impact on her descendants today to shine a light on the nation’s dark history of medical experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over the control of individual DNA.


Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

This memoir documents the author's journey from childhood in a rural Idahoan survivalist family to the pursuit of higher education in spite of seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Historical Perspectives

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

This novel illuminates the historical experience of racial passing and the terrible costs of bigotry in the Deep South through the multigenerational family saga of Black twin sisters from the 1950s to 1990s whose lives diverge.


The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South by John T. Edge

This work tracks the South's culinary legacy from the food of working class Southerners to its current staus a staple of American cuisine, with specific attention paid to the role of food in the civil rights movement.


March Trilogy by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

This autobiographical graphic novel recounts the lived experience of U.S. Congressman John Lewis and his monumental contributions to the civil rights movement.

Poetry and Prose

Ink Knows No Borders: Poems of the Immigrant and Refugee Experience, edited by Patrice Vecchione and Alyssa Raymond.

The varied and diverse experiences of young immigrants and refugees comprise this collection of poetry from prominent poets including Ocean Vuong and Elizabeth Acevedo.


Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

An innovative work of poetry, prose, and visual images, Citizen is a powerful testament to the individual and collective effects of racism in our contemporary, often named "post-race" society.


Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This work of historical fiction follows the parallel paths of two Ghanian half-sisters and their descendants through eight generations to illuminate slavery’s troubled legacy for both those taken and those who remained.


Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (ΦBK, Princeton University)

A love story about refugees  from a war-torn country that imagines the forces that drive ordinary people from their homes into the uncertain embrace of new lands.

Phi Beta Kappa Events & Advocacy intern Vivian Nguyen contributed to this article by researching campus common reading selections from our 293 chapters.