New students engage with author Dolly Chugh at 14th annual Lawson Lecture

Every fall, the university hosts the annual Lawson Lecture, named in honor of the Rev. James Lawson and his legacy of challenging the unfair and unethical treatment of people of color in the 1960s. This lecture connects Lawson’s legacy to the topics found in The Commons Reading, a text all incoming students—first-year and transfer—are asked to read prior to arriving at Vanderbilt.

The 2020 Commons Reading, The Person You Mean to Be by Dolly Chugh, challenges individuals to confront their own biases and those inherent in the world around them in an effort to live up to the idea of being “good people.” The reading was selected to anchor the Vanderbilt Visions program for first-year students and to provide meaningful context for the Connecting to VU program for transfer students. A team of faculty and students worked together in spring 2020 to recommend the title.

The Person You Mean to Be provides people from different backgrounds and perspectives with tools for finding common ground, enabling them to talk to one another honestly and productively,” Elizabeth Covington, senior lecturer in English and gender and sexuality studies and leader of the reading recommendation team, said. “The text is relatable and engagingly told with vivid anecdotes, and it offers explicit terms for analyzing and explaining core beliefs and assumptions. [We] felt certain that this book would equip our students with skills in reflecting on their experiences and backgrounds and communicating effectively about challenging topics, which are essential to a successful Vanderbilt experience.”

This year’s Lawson Lecture, held on Oct. 4, featured the book’s author and Dean of The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons Melissa Gresalfi engaging in a fireside chat via webinar. Students were invited to submit video questions for Chugh in advance. In a one-hour discussion, students were given the opportunity to see Chugh in her home office, discussing ways to apply the concepts found in the book to collegiate life.

“The purpose of the Lawson Lecture is to create an opportunity to learn more about the reading that has already played such a central role in our discussions over this semester,” Gresalfi said. “So often we read books that inspire us, books that help us to see the world in a different way. It is rare that we have a chance to extend that conversation beyond the book through discussion with the author, and that is exactly what we were able to do with this year’s Lawson Lecture.

“This year our online format required that we think a bit more creatively about how to engage students in the discussion, and ultimately we hosted a discussion with Professor Chugh that integrated multiple questions from students and faculty,” Gresalfi continued. “In her responses, Chugh shared how her thinking developed in the writing of The Person You Mean to Be, but also how it has changed, both in response to conversations about the book and in response to current events. The discussion modeled for all of us how the work of becoming the person you mean to be is ongoing but rewarding.”

A recording of the lecture is available online. For questions about The Commons Reading or the Lawson Lecture, email