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First-Year Reading

Each year, the first-year class dean asks students to read a common text. The first-year reading connects you to the Holy Cross community through a shared reading experience, welcoming you to a culture that values the thoughtful discussion of ideas. 

In preparation for beginning your education at Holy Cross, Constance Royden, class dean for the class of 2024, has selected “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, as the first-year class reading. 

It is the story of an African American woman who died of cervical cancer at age 31 in 1951. A tissue sample of her cancer cells became the first human cell line to grow in tissue culture and survive for more than a short time. This cell line, known as HeLa (from the first two letters of her first and last name), has been used in laboratories all over the world in scientific and medical research. The book tells Henrietta's story and follows the author's journey as she tries to build a relationship of trust with Henrietta's family in order to learn more about her life. 

As you read the book, please reflect on the following questions.

  1. The author, Rebecca Skloot, was inspired to find out about the life of Henrietta Lacks when she was learning about cells in a biology class. She became determined to write Henrietta's story, which she did, spending 10 years to learn about the details of Henrietta's life. Along the way she not only explored the science, but also grappled with a variety of questions concerning social and racial justice. This summer we have seen many people becoming inspired to work toward social and racial justice. Write about a social issue you have been inspired to actively work toward, or learn more about. What was the source of your inspiration? What have you done or do you plan to do to follow that inspiration?
  2. American history is replete with examples of the differential treatment of people on the basis of their race and/or ethnicity. Do you think Henrietta's experiences with the medical system would have been different if she were white? Has the disparate medical treatment of people of color changed today? In what ways has it changed or remained the same?
  3. The doctors who treated Henrietta's cancer used tissue from the tumor without her or her family's informed consent, and the family was not compensated for the use of her cells. The experiments done with her cells led to many important scientific discoveries and medical treatments. Do the benefits of the research outweigh the issues of privacy and consent? Should her family be compensated for the use of her cells?
  4. The author writes about her own journey as she tries to establish a relationship of trust between herself and Henrietta's family, particularly Henrietta's daughter, Deborah. How did she go about establishing that trust? What would you have done differently?  
  5. Have you ever gotten to know someone who differs from you in their life circumstances (e.g., different age, race, gender, sexual orientation, place of origin, etc.)?  What did you learn from that relationship?  Did it change the way you think about others?