The Quiet Rise of Scripps Alumnae Book Clubs

By Emily Glory Peters

Scripps alums from Pasadena book club
Pasadena book club alums with “Rocket Girl” Sue Finley ’58

Book club. Reading group. A fun Monday evening. Whichever way you label their gatherings, one thing is clear: Scripps alumnae like to bond over their shared love of a good book.

For decades, books have served as a magnet, drawing peers across class years into one another’s orbit. Launched and led solely by alums, several independent book clubs have sprung up across the nation, uniting graduates who otherwise may never have met.

“Initially, the main connection I had to Scripps, except for a couple of friends, is that I did go to Reunion Weekend,” says Katherine Madison Cerino ’70, who helped launched a club in Arizona. It was at a reunion in 2005 that she met a fellow alum who lived near her. “I said, ‘Hey, can we find a way to get a group of us together in Tucson? I want to meet some intelligent women.’ A book club was what people wanted most.”

Read This, Not That

Every year, the Tucson group votes on six fiction and six nonfiction books to explore. Cerino assigns the books to members so each person gets a chance to lead. Exposure to genres of all types is a priority, even when opinions differ. “Some of the best discussions come from books we don’t even like,” says Cerino.

A few states away in Pasadena, California, former Scripps trustee Barbara Bruner ’76 says their club’s “perfectly imperfect” piecemeal approach works well for them. In the Northern New Jersey/Westchester, New York/Southern Connecticut area, Caroline Kanis Daifotis ’81, P’19’s group eschews bestseller lists and opts for Pulitzer and Booker Prize winners or even themes, like books that center on powerful women characters.

And while Debra Erickson Mills ’79 and Denise Armijo ’91—who co-founded their San Diego group with Marilyn Randolph Tobin ’90—also select books from less familiar genres and cultures, there’s a twist.

“In our very first meeting, a member had a book in mind that she had heard had rave reviews. That was our first book and everybody hated it!” Armijo laughs. “So we created a rule that if you nominate a book, you must have already read it.”

Once selections are inked in, many clubs play with book concepts—like pairing deep dish pizza with a novel set in Chicago or taking a private tour of Los Angeles Central Library while reading about its mysterious past. Current events also influence their time together, with both Cerino and Bruner noting how issues surrounding Black Lives Matter and critical race theory have impacted their book choices.

Scripps alums at San Diego book clubMembers of San Diego’s book club

Unsurprisingly, Scripps alumnae authors also commonly appear on the clubs’ must-read lists.

“We’ve read Natasha Josefowitz ’47, Pat Fisher-Smith ’51, and Margaret O’Brien Dilloway ’96—Margaret even shared a draft of her first book with us during club, which was an incredible experience,” says Armijo. Sometimes, special guests may make an appearance.

“We were reading the Rise of the Rocket Girls, and who do we have show up for that meeting but Sue Finley ’58, a Rocket Girl and NASA’s longest-standing employee!” says Bruner. “It was such a lovely surprise.”

Whether book selections are met with applause or criticism, one element is constant: Books make life better, especially when they’re shared.

“At the core of our group, we simply love books. We treasure them. They’re some of our best friends,” says Erickson Mills. Observing how her love of reading accelerated at Scripps, today she looks at the practice as a gift. “When I think of people who can’t travel or have a lot of life experiences, I remember I’ve traveled all around the world because of what I’ve read. Fun books or serious, reading opens so many doors.”

A Support System That’s Bigger Than Books

The longevity of these book clubs is impressive. Pasadena members have been going strong for more than a decade; Tucson for 17 years; San Diego and New Jersey/Connecticut for at least twenty years.

Since the pandemic, several have switched to meeting over Zoom, while others have found ways to connect in person at one another’s homes, chatting over a meal. Outgrowths happen, too, like Erickson Mills’ book club for the Class of ’79 and Cerino’s online gatherings with her Class of ’70 peers. Over the years, members have moved or married; started families or mourned a loss. While books brought these alumnae together, their relationships remain the true binding.

“I’m grateful for the mentorship I’ve received, being able to lean on others who have already gone through raising teenagers, managing the transition of your children going to college,” says Daifotis. “Our group has spanned generations, life and career experiences, political perspectives—we’ve built a sisterhood.”

Cerino agrees, sharing that when she was going through chemotherapy after a breast cancer diagnosis, the Scripps community was there for her—especially her club members. They’ve become a support system, she says, nurturing friendships that exist outside their gatherings.

Even for Bruner, Armijo, and Erickson Mills, who all belong to other non-Scripps book clubs, sustaining their alum connection remains a priority.

“What’s lovely is that we have this shared life experience that helps connect us in a way that we wouldn’t with a disparate group,” says Erickson Mills, adding there are nights when book discussion may last a few minutes before catching up takes over. “Scripps has this really strong bond.”

That emphasis on bonding through writing continues today at the College, most recently in its upcoming author salon series. Hosted by President Suzanne Keen, award-winning writers will engage in thought-provoking chats with Scripps alums, parents, and friends in free events around the country. The salons aim to reflect the same quality of conversation Armijo values among her own group members—no matter the book or topic.

“The focus in critical thinking has lent itself to book clubs that explore the world and listen to different opinions,” she says. “It speaks to the level of education that we got at Scripps.”

Put another way, as Daifotis reflects on Scripps’ goal to “educate women to develop their intellects and talents through active participation in a community of scholars, so that as graduates they may contribute to society through public and private lives of leadership, service, integrity, and creativity”:

“Book groups are a living and breathing example of the mission of the College.”

If you belong to an existing book club or other alumnae group and would like to share with the broader Scripps alum community, please contact the Office of Alumnae Engagement at [email protected].

If you’re a Scripps alum who is interested in joining a book club or learning how to begin one, please contact the below alumnae in your area.

Barbara Bruner ’76
Pasadena, California

Katherine Cerino ’70
Tucson, Arizona; Class of ’70 gatherings (non-book club)

Caroline Daifotis ’81, P’19
Northern New Jersey; Westchester, New York; Southern Connecticut

Debra Erickson Mills ’79
San Diego, California; Class of ’79