International Literacy Day: Reading Shapes UMGC Lives

A University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) writing teacher hated reading when she was a child. An academic program director and author didn’t become interested in books until he was in college. The university’s senior vice president of global military operations turned to books because his family didn’t have the means to travel.

Today—Sept. 8—is celebrated around the world as International Literacy Day. A UNESCO resolution launched the day in 1967 to advance literacy as a human right and as essential in lifelong learning. In recognition of the day, UMGC leadership and faculty members looked back on their relationship with books and reading.

“There are so many moments in history that involve wisdom that came from reading. I think of Abraham Lincoln, of Martin Luther King Jr. I think of Malcolm X learning to read in prison, of Richard Wright talking about reading and writing,” said UMGC President Gregory Fowler. “History is filled with the power of reading. Literacy broadens our horizons and helps us really grow as human beings.

“In its own way, it allows us to explore the world.” 

Fowler’s drive to read was fueled by impatience. He couldn’t wait for the moments when his mother or sister had time to read to him, so he learned to do it himself. By the time he started school as a 5-year-old, he was reading at a Grade 3 level—and was able to consolidate two years of elementary school, entering third grade at the age of six. 

Books were also a childhood fixture for Damon Freeman, collegiate professor and director of the History and African American Studies Program. His father read to him as an infant and toddler. 

“I vaguely remember getting a book around the age of 4. One day I walked up to my mother and began talking to her about ‘diplodocus,’” he said. “We have a photo somewhere of me trying to read my dinosaur book to my little sister.” Decades later, Freeman still owns that copy of “The True Book of Dinosaurs” by Mary Lou Clark.

The science section of any bookstore was Freeman’s go-to place as a child. His parents, both teachers, widened his collection by tucking in Shel Silverstein books for children—and he occasionally revisits a Silverstein book for its lessons about life.

“I think reading literacy and comprehension has been my greatest strength. I seemed to understand almost instinctively when a teacher would ask a question about the main idea or theme of a paragraph or chapter,” Freeman said. “I think the ability to contextualize facts and ideas is important to anyone’s life and has been central to my education in history and law.”  

Patricia Coopersmith, UMGC associate vice president and deputy director in the Europe division, also returns with frequency to a book she read when young: “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen.

Patricia Coopersmith, UMGC associate vice president, Europe division

“The rags-to-riches, romance, historical perspective—and so much more—sweep me away to another place and time, take any stress out of my day and always remind me of a few life lessons that I shouldn’t forget,” she said.

Coopersmith, a fan of historical fiction, said her reading of stories about kings and queens fueled a desire to see the world and directly connects her job at UMGC to her early reading.

Jeanine Williams, director of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program, is clear about her early connection to books—and its irony. 

“I hated reading as a child,” said Williams. “It’s funny when you think that my professional background is actually in reading. I teach writing now but most of my work has been around students at the college level who needed reading support.” 

She said that work is designed to teach students how to more deeply understand the lessons found in stories. “I got into that because I realized how important literacy is to everything in life,” Williams explained.

She said she did not feel connected with books until sixth grade when a teacher “selected books that seemed to resonate with me and my classmates.” Today Williams usually is reading multiple books at a time. Even more, she is a demonstrative reader. 

“I don’t come to reading passively. When I read, I mark up the margins,” she said. “I get really engaged and have a conversation with the text.”

Author Steven Killings, director of the Humanities and Philosophy Program, described himself a late bloomer when it came to reading.

“I joined the Marine Corps when I was 17, after graduating high school, and didn’t really get interested in books until I was in college,” said Killings, the author of  “A Student Reader of Secular Latin Poetry from Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages” and the novel “The Queen of Sorrows.”

“A professor of mine suggested that I visit the Newberry Library in Chicago for a class project. The Newberry was like the Pierpont Morgan in New York City or the Huntington Library in San Marino, those institutions founded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by wealthy industrialists whose aim was to create a repository of ancient and medieval books and manuscripts for American scholars. 

“I became fascinated by the culture of medieval scholars and manuscripts at the Newberry. I became friends with the special collections curator, and I changed my college major and began studying Latin and Ancient Greek so I could read the medieval manuscripts,” he said.  

Killings’ interest in books cascaded into the collecting of rare books, as well as calligraphy and book binding. 

Libraries were also a favorite haunt of Reynaldo Garcia, a professor and director of the Community College Policy and Administration doctoral program. He recalled being a regular visitor to the library in the Catholic grammar school he attended. “For every book I finished, I was always anxious to get back to the library and pick the next one, and then the next one, throughout elementary, middle and high school.

“Reading for me was always an exciting privilege,” he said. “Early opportunities to explore and develop those reading muscles made me a very strong student and a really well-informed consumer of information who is able to examine things with a critical eye.”

Today Garcia splits his reading three ways—and he always has multiple books going at the same time. He reads books that keep him current in his field. He reads for self-development, a category that includes books about history, politics and governance. And he reads for pleasure, from airport paperbacks to classic literature. 

Childhood books hold a special place in the lives of many UMGC readers.

“My earliest memory about reading involves a book about a mouse who wanted to bake an apple pie. I was able to understand that much from the pictures,” said Valorie King, collegiate professor and director of the Cybersecurity Management and Policy Program. “I wanted to know the rest of the story but there was no one available to read the book to me—my older brother wanted to play outside with his friends and mom was busy with chores. 

“I decided then and there that I was going to learn to read so that I didn’t have to wait for anyone else,” she said.

King’s aspiration didn’t actually come true until second grade, when a nun at Holy Redeemer School in College Park, Maryland “took me in hand and taught me phonics and spelling.” From that point forward, she borrowed books from her school library on a daily basis and, during the summer, walked two miles each way to the county library “to check out as many books as my arms would hold.” Science fiction was her favorite genre. 

“Those were the days when Andre Norton and Robert Heinlein were writing juvenile fiction,” she said. “I am constantly amazed that I am living with the technologies that they and other authors created and described in their fictional works.”

She added that she gets some of her best ideas for cybersecurity-focused student projects and classroom discussions from the works of authors like S.E. Weir, J.D. Robb, C. J. Cherryh, Glynn Stewart, and Craig Martelle.

King is a voracious reader, currently on a Kindle reading streak that is close to 160 days long. 

Books were also a gateway to the world and new ideas for Lloyd “Milo” Miles, senior vice president of global military operations. 

“I come from a poor background, and books were the way we could escape and read about different places in the world we never thought we would see,” he said. “I could increase my imagination from reading science fiction—Isaac Asimov—or ‘Robinson Crusoe’ or even comic books.”

For his work at UMGC, there’s a book that Miles keeps close at hand, the war novel “Once an Eagle” by Anton Myrer. 

“I refer to it a lot in the speeches I make. It has messages about leadership that I value,” he explained. 

Miles said he reads nonfiction during the day and fiction “for enjoyment and escape” in the evening before he goes to bed. 

Miles retired from the U.S. Army as a major general before joining UMGC. In his real-life journeys around the globe, he has often been struck by how people—especially those who do not have a lot—value books. 

“If you gave them a book, it was like handing them a bar of gold,” he said. “I always appreciated when nonprofits would team up with military to help us distribute books in various parts of the world.

“I felt that maybe we were helping them escape to a bigger world, like I did as a child,” he said.

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