SVC Class Explores DNA, Genealogy Link

12/08/10 7:34AM By Susan Keese
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Mai Deo
(Host) Discovering one's roots can be a life-changing experience. African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates has shown how powerful such discoveries can be in his PBS programs on the genealogy and DNA of prominent Americans.

In an effort to tap that power, first-year students at Bennington's Southern Vermont College have worked with Gates to research their own roots.

VPR's Susan Keese reports on some of their findings.

(Mariachi music)

(Flores) "This poncho right here is from my grandfather."

(Keese) Gregorio Flores stands in an exhibition room at the Bennington Museum, where the 19 students in the course presented their discoveries.

Flores learned that his grandfather was a famous Mariachi singer in Mexico.

(Flores) "Also, my great grandfather, I found out, rode with Poncho Villa."

(Keese) Behind him are posters decorated with family trees and personal statements beginning with the words, "I am," and, "I am from."

One by one, the students describe what they unearthed while researching everyone's favorite topic: themselves.

Here are students Mitchell Sweet, Sarah Simonetti, and Mai Deo.

(Sweet) "My audio piece is really the first conversation I had with my grandfather.:"

(Simonetti) "We found out that I was Jewish, and I didn't know that."

(Deo) "I chose to display pictures of my great grandfather because he fought in the Vietnam war. He actually helped my family migrate to America." 

(Keese) Southern Vermont College Provost Al DeCiccio teaches the course. He says the collaboration with Gates began when Karen Gross, the college president, attended a lecture by the Harvard scholar.

Gates theorized that minority students and those who don't typically go to college might be less likely to quit college if their studies related more to their own lives.

DeCiccio says Gates singled out Southern Vermont College in his lecture for its work with students who were the first in their families to go to college.

(DeCiccio) "Being the person that she is, Karen went right up to Henry Louis Gates and said, ‘We need you to come to Southern Vermont College.' And he said he'd do that if somebody will teach the course."

(Keese) Gates was on hand for the student presentations last year. He couldn't attend this year, but has been keeping abreast of the class's progress.

DNA testing was part of the student project. Gates famously used DNA testing to discover that he has almost as much white ancestry as black. Other African Americans have used it to learn their tribal origins.

The Vermont students limited their DNA testing to their mothers' sides because that's all the college budget would allow.

Bennington Museum Curator Stephen Perkins met with the group regularly. He recalls a student who found an ancestor from Budapest.

(Perkins) "But we were looking at the record and it said Budapest, Austria so we sent him off on a little mini research project, where he learned what the Austro Hungarian Empire was."

(Keese) Nursing student Sarah Stryker says the course offered an opportunity to learn about her mother, who left the family when Stryker was still small.

(Stryker) "But finding out information on her kind of completes that gap. It's like I know who I actually am and I'm not guessing any more."

(Keese) And knowing who you are is one step toward becoming an educated person.

For VPR News, I'm Susan Keese.

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