Nearly two decades after appearing at Boston College’s inaugural First Year Academic Convocation, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder will return to campus in September to discuss his critically acclaimed new book, Rough Sleepers: Dr. Jim O’Connell’s Urgent Mission to Bring Healing to Homeless People, with the 2023 freshman class.

Tracy Kidder

Tracy Kidder (Photo by Frances Kidder)

Organized by the Office of First Year Experience, the convocation will be held on September 7. The Class of 2027 will gather on Linden Lane to receive a charge from faculty, administrators, and the Jesuit community of Boston College to “go and set the world aflame.” They will then process to Conte Forum to hear from Kidder and the convocation’s other guest speakers.

The event begins BC’s Conversations in the First Year, which engages each incoming class in a reflective dialogue around a common text—and helps create the year’s academic theme—as a means to offer insight into how to respond to life’s questions and find direction in their personal journey. Among the authors whose works have been explored by previous first-year classes are Barack Obama, John McCain, Ann Patchett, Jeannette Walls, Bruce Springsteen, and Liz Hauck ’00, M.Ed. ’09.

A master of reporting and nonfiction storytelling, Kidder will be accompanied by Jim O’Connell, M.D.—the subject of his inspiring story of a dedicated doctor, who after completing his medical residency some 40 years ago helped to create a medical system for the homeless people of Boston. Kidder spent time over five years riding with Dr. O’Connell as he navigated the city at night, offering medical care, socks, soup, empathy, and friendship to some of the city’s endangered citizens.

Dr. O’Connell and his colleagues lead an organization that includes clinics affiliated with Massachusetts General Hospital and the Boston Medical Center, and a host of teams that serve special groups, including one that reaches “rough sleepers”—people who sleep on the streets, “in the rough”—by van.

Kidder takes readers deep into Dr. O’Connell’s world, much as he did with Paul Farmer, M.D., in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Mountains Beyond Mountains—the common text for the First Year Academic Convocation in 2004, at which Kidder spoke with Dr. Farmer.

“For the Class of 2027, Rough Sleepers is a wonderful introduction to the lifelong process of discernment that is so central to the philosophy of formative education at Boston College,” said Michael Sacco, executive director of the Center for Student Formation and Office of First Year Experience, of the book’s selection as the common text given to students at summer orientation.

“First-year students will benefit greatly from reading this honest, reflective, and authentic account of someone who has significantly impacted the way in which Boston cares for its unhoused population,” he said. “By engaging with both Kidder and Dr. O’Connell, we hope that our students can envision what a life of service to others might mean for them.”

Cover of book "Rough Sleepers"

That Rough Sleepers is set in Boston, Sacco added, “only reinforces the notion that our students do not have to travel great distances to live in solidarity with others.”

Called a “magnificent, deeply researched, and inspiring book,” Rough Sleepers tells the stories of Dr. O’Connell and other health care professionals, as well as some of the members of the homeless community whom they serve and accompany. The stories highlight the dignity of each person and the importance of integrating care for the physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of a person.

Rough Sleepers “invites you to consider how accompaniment with others will lead to greater understanding of yourself and how the experience of vulnerability and reflection inform how you engage with the world around you,” according to the accompanying reading guide provided to students, encouraging them to ponder such important questions as:  

How you can you be an agent for reconciliation in today’s world?  How can you show compassion to those you encounter at Boston College?

As you begin your BC experience, we want you to think about what it means for you to be part of a community of care.  How can you contribute to that?  How will you grow from that?  How will you use your “gifts and talents to advance the common good”?

“At Boston College, we have long understood from the Jesuits about the importance of engaging students in a conversation that encourages their growth intellectually, socially, and spiritually,” Sacco explained. “The format of the conversation can vary, but the aim remains to encourage students to be attentive to their experiences and reflective of their meaning with the hope that this will help them discern their role in the world.  

“Throughout Tracy Kidder’s biography of Dr. Jim O’Connell, he highlights a multitude of examples of him paying close attention to his life experiences, reflecting upon their meaning, and living in a way that translates this meaning into action to create a better world,” Sacco said.

“First Year Academic Convocation celebrates BC’s rich intellectual tradition while welcoming the incoming class into the University’s academic community,” he added. This “treasured University tradition ignites the type of meaningful conversation students will continue to find and engage in throughout their years at Boston College.”

For University community members interested in Rough Sleepers, it will be available at the BC Bookstore. For more on the author, see

Rosanne Pellegrini | University Communications | May 2023