During a private January 24 visit, award-winning journalist Omar El Akkad will join 25 Merced College students at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla to dissect the Canadian-Egyptian author’s provocative 2014 novel entitled “American War.”

It will be a second go at the novel for the Merced College Prison Education Program students who first tackled it while studying college reading and composition with Jennifer McBride, their English 1A instructor, last spring. 

The first-time novelist’s work so deeply challenged the students that McBride was inspired to share their experiences with El Akkad, and to invite the Portland-based author to meet with her class. 

She was shocked when El Akkad accepted and then said, via email, that it thrilled him to know the book resonated with her class. El Akkad was so eager to discuss it with the students that he has also waived his speaking fee.

“Merced College is very lucky to have visiting authors come visit with students on our main campus and the students enjoy the opportunity to hear authors talk,” McBride said. “But this will be the first time an author will work with our incarcerated students. It is an important academic and artistic opportunity for [them]. We are incredibly grateful.”

McBride has been teaching at Valley State Prison and the California Correctional Women’s Facility since the College launched its prison education program in 2016.

Last spring, she had students compare utopian and dystopian novels including classics like Sir Thomas More’s “Utopia” and George Orwell’s “1984.”  She had just read “American War” and added the futuristic story to her syllabus. El Akkad’s story centers on a fictional Second Civil War in a U.S. ravaged by natural disasters, disease and geopolitical upheaval.

The Merced College Prison Education Program instructs students from Valley State Prison and the California Correctional Women’s Facility in Chowchilla in partnership the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

There are currently 25 Merced College instructors leading 33 sections of courses at the two institutions. Roughly 500 students are enrolled in classes that cover five different degree pathways—English, communication studies, sociology, psychology, and business administration.

As part of the preparation for El Akkad’s visit, the Merced College Foundation purchased three dozen books so the students could own their own copy of El Akkad’s novel.

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El Akkad, 38, is a native of Cairo, Egypt and grew up in Qatar before immigrating to Canada. He is an award-winning investigative journalist who has reported on the war in Afghanistan, the military trials in Guantanamo Bay, the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri. El Akkad has also been honored with Canada’s National Newspaper Award for investigative reporting.

For more information on Merced College’s Prison Education Program, please contact the College’s Office of External Relations at (209) 384-6176.