Incoming Freshmen Explore a Soldier’s Saga

July 19, 2011

The incoming members of the Menlo Class of 2015 have a compelling assignment: to immerse themselves in the story of Louis Zamperini, a 1936 Olympic runner and WWII bombardier. As part of the assignment, freshmen will put together a portfolio for their Freshman English class, a process that is designed to encourage their understanding and creativity.

“Our criteria were that the book be a page-turner, that it appeal to a wide range of interests, and that it lend itself to discussion,” said Dr. Marilyn Thomas, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Menlo College. Dr. Thomas was part of a 25-member committee of faculty, staff, and students which selected the book. “We are all eager to help the incoming freshmen get off to a wonderful start as Menlo College students. The common book is one way we do that,” said Dr. Thomas.

Born in 1917, Louis Zamperini was the son of Italian immigrants, who moved to California when he was a young boy. An awkward, gangling teenager, he took up athletics and achieved success as a long-distance runner, competing in the 1936 Olympics in Germany. He enlisted in the Air Force when WWII broke out. After surviving a plane crash in the Pacific, he endured 47 days lost at sea in a poorly equipped raft, only to be captured by the Japanese. Presumed dead, he spent two years as a prisoner of war. Upon his return, he suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, but experienced a religious conversion that gave him solace and allowed him to forgive his captors.

In their first assignment for Freshman English, students are preparing a portfolio that includes their reading notes, a critical essay, and a creative piece—such as a short story, poem, or short film–that riffs off the book’s themes of survival, resilience, and redemption. Exceptional work will be acknowledged through awards for the best critical essay, best creative work, and best overall portfolio, which will be nominated and selected by the common book committee.