Books are helping people connect during COVID-19.

After COVID-19 hit and social distancing became a way of life, several faculty, staff, and students found a creative way to not only stay in touch, but to also find solace during these uncertain times, all through reading. Over the summer Book Talk, the Alumni Book club, and Emily’s Book Club Buddies all connected online through a shared enjoyment of reading.

Dr. Karen Rice, a certified trauma-informed expressive arts social worker, wanted to bring a bibliotherapy type program to the Millersville University community for a few years. Given the recent challenges being faced, individuals were seeking a way to remain connected and process the feelings they were experiencing. Rice reached out to two colleagues within the department of English, Drs. Nicole Pfannenstiel and Emily Baldys to assist with putting together this program.

They refer to the program as Book Talk, as to avoid confusion with the formal counseling form of bibliotherapy. This form of counseling, used for clinical and developmental purposes, uses books as a way for the reader to see the world from a different point of view in order to demonstrate they are not alone in thoughts, feelings, or actions.

The book selected was Amanda Stern’s critically acclaimed memoir “Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life.”

During the Zoom sessions, Baldys, Rice and Pfannenstiel helped those in the program agree on expectations of the meeting, since it involved sharing sensitive topics. Then, they used Zoom break out rooms to form small discussion groups.

Afterward, as a large group, highlights were shared from the small group discussion and they further explored specific passages in the book and ended with an expressive arts activity that illuminated some of the themes that emerged. Each participant shared what they took away which could be applied to their own lives.   The program uses creative activities before and during their sessions to help readers connect what they are reading to their own life experiences in hopes to bring comfort, insight and a way to express their emotions.

Book Talk is now a new program within The Learning Institute, which aims to advance global justice and human rights through its various educational and service programming.

This fall the books being discussed are “Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi and “I’m Telling the Truth but I’m Lying” by Ikpi Bassey.

Rice shared why she feels programs like this are important, especially while people may be feeling isolated or anxious, “During times of uncertainty such as a pandemic and social unrest, it is natural to feel anxious, stressed, lonely, frustrated and angry. Regardless of our unique differences in how we experience these challenges, we are all affected and being able to gather, process, support and dialogue around this similarity is cathartic. Further, the group removes power imbalances as regardless of the titles we hold, we are all learners who come together to learn from each other and to grow, personally and/or professionally.”

Millersville University also has the Alumni Book Club, which launched this summer.  The program was started by the Office of Alumni Engagement after attending a conference where the office learned of the online book club vendor PBC Guru.

When in-person events for the alumni were cancelled, the office realized there was a need to provide new ways for alumni to connect and interact. “Knowing that many people were sheltering in place, an online book club seemed like a great opportunity to offer alumni a way to stay occupied at home, while engaging with their Marauder community.”

The club read “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towels, a story of a man under house arrest in an elegant hotel, which the office felt might offer an interesting perspective on quarantine. PBC Guru offers a selection of books, which the club can review and vote on. For the next book, the club has chosen “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson.

Like any book club, there is a reading schedule which follows discussions that the alumni facilitate themselves. A moderator through PBC Guru also sends things such as check-in emails, discussion topics and resources which help in understanding the context of the book. Discussions are not synchronous, so anyone can add to the posts at any time.

“In our first book we have heard from alumni that we hadn’t been in touch with in years, if at all since they graduated,” shares Gabrielle Buzgo, interim director of Alumni Engagement,  “Perhaps it’s because this wasn’t an in-person event that you had to be local for and available to attend, or because people were looking for something they could do at home—but we’re reaching new alumni and connecting them back to Millersville in a way that works for them, at a time when connecting is all we can strive for”

Faculty and staff are not the only ones who have started book clubs due to the COVID-19 crisis. Emily Guise is a Millersville University student who began her own book club when classes moved online during the spring 2020 semester. Guise is an Environmental Hazards and Emergency Management major with a minor in government from Harrisburg. She plans to graduate May of 2021.

Guise began the book club as a way to gather people together during the COVID-19 pandemic, “I decided to start the book club so I could have a community of people connected over something during quarantine,” she shares, “It worked out perfectly because we created a little tight- knit community that not only likes to read and listen to new and diverse stories but we also check in on each other, talk about our days, what we ate for dinner, how we’re doing mentally and so on. “

Guise uses Instagram as the platform to host her virtual book club. She created an account specifically for the club where anyone who has joined the group can watch from Instagram live as Guise reads aloud. They have also taken to watching movies that accompany the books together through Zoom.

Guise feels the club is a good way to stay connected with her peers, “Just checking in with other people and knowing that you’re not alone, as well as having something to bond over. I’ve made a ton of new friends from this during the quarantine when I haven’t been able to see my peers at school or at work, so it’s nice to have the community.”

Guise also shared why she thinks reading for personal enjoyment is still important, “It gives you more perspective! I grew up with a pretty narrow mind and reading stories of other people’s struggles has made me grow and gain insight on others who are different than me. Plus I feel like it really promotes imagination and strengthens your brain,” She adds her own book recommendations as well, “My biggest contenders for books that everyone (over the age of 18) should read are “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, “A Little Life”  by Hanya Yanagihara (this one comes with a huge trigger warning for trauma and abuse), and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Other Lessons From The Crematory” by Caitlin Doughty.”

Guise would also like people to know it is important to recognize the current issues we are facing today, “everyone should donate to organizations which provide direct help to people of color and learn about ways we can end systemic issues such as cash bail.”

For more information on Group Talk, please contact Dr. Karen Rice at karen.rice@millersville.edu.

Information about the alumni book club can be found here https://www.millersville.edu/alumni/get-connected/alumni-virtual-book-club.php.

Information about Emily’s Book Club Buddies can be found on Instagram via @emilysbookclubbuddies or emilysbookclubbuddies.com.

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