by Ken Burchett, associate editor

Ancestry.com, in addition to the census records utilized by students, offers DNA tests to reveal a map of a person’s ancestry. In past years, the freshman team has selected students to perform this DNA test. Students that have performed this test prior to the project are encouraged to utilize this information in their papers.

NOVEMBER 2021 – Every year, the freshmen at Bio-Med Science Academy research their family’s lineage and write papers about what they found. The project is administered by Mr. Brain McDonald, the freshmen English teacher.

“The heritage project is a way for the students to understand where they came from, and the obstacles that their ancestors faced, in an effort to get them to have empathy for others who are facing similar obstacles now, and to see how fortunate their lives are,” McDonald explained. “To get to know their identities a little bit and what their past people came from, they do family research [by] talking to people in their family, doing research on the census, and researching countries and places their ancestors may have lived or worked.”

McDonald recalled the conception of the project. “I read this article on how math can show we’re all related, about 15 years ago, and after I was reading that article, I thought ‘why don’t we teach this stuff in school?’” he said.

The project started out small, with a simple interview with a family member over Thanksgiving break. McDonald recalled the topics they’d discussed, saying, “They’d talk about traditions and family and maybe the countries they knew they were from.”

After beginning to teach Bio-Med freshmen, he expanded the scope of the project. “I was made aware we had access to Ancestry.com because we were on a university library…. We could see what Ancestry.com could give us as far as records, so we started doing census stuff. That was a big boost to the kind of information we could get,” McDonald said.

The project expanded beyond writing a paper, often incorporating art elements, such as designing family crests or seals. This year, students are creating a collage of their family’s heritage journey, including symbolism for the locations their ancestors came from, push and pull factors of immigration, and biological traits they’ve discovered in their research. McDonald created an example collage and shared it with his students(right). He also shared an example from last year’s students (left).

Many students enjoyed the opportunity to learn about their heritage. Nami Miller, a freshman, has enjoyed the project so far. “I like the project. I think it’s really cool that we get to research about our own family and look into it on our own account,” she stated. “I’ve been finding some really cool things about my parents and my grandparents and great-great grandparents and what they did.”

Miller struggled finding information online, so she sourced much of her information from speaking with her relatives, such as her great-aunt.  

Jacob Proctor, another freshman, also enjoyed the project, saying, “I like researching and learning more about my family. I found some really interesting stuff about where they come from and stuff they did back then; I think it’s really cool.” He recalled some of the information he found. “I went back to the 1500s on my dad’s side; it was my 16th generation. I’m related to a guy who got crushed in an elevator accident, which was weird and interesting to find.”

Other students struggled with the project. Andrew Nguyen, a sophomore, recalled his experience with the project. Nguyen’s parents immigrated to the United States from Vietnam. “I wasn’t able to find any of my family on [the census]. I’m a first generation U.S .citizen, so I had to go to my grandparents and ask them,” he stated. “I wanted to see what it was like from the beginning. I didn’t get to go as far back as I’d like,” he said.

However, he still enjoyed the project, stating, “The project was a fun project. It gave me a chance to ask my grandparents about where we started off from, what it was like being in Vietnam. Especially being a part of the Asian minority, I kind of used it as an excuse since I’ve always wondered but didn’t know how to ask them.”

McDonald discussed the issues he noticed in students. “The bigger issue I tend to find with real research problems are among the African American population,” he said.

Havann Brown, a senior and editor-in-chief of The Hive, experienced these issues finding information about her family. “I had quite a bit of difficulty completing the heritage project, because while my white peers were able to trace their family’s history and lineage outside of the U.S. and back centuries, I couldn’t trace my family’s history outside of 1940s Georgia. People weren’t exactly keeping the most accurate records of slaves and where they came from,” she said.

While Brown’s paper focused on personal stories from interviewing her grandfather, she still felt like she missed out on an enjoyable opportunity to learn. “Everyone was like ‘Oh this project is so fun! I could be related to royalty!’ when I literally don’t know where I come from. I could look at a map of Africa and I could point to any random country and I could possibly be from there, but I just don’t know,” Brown said. “This is what a lot of Black Americans face because they cannot place where their families are from.”

McDonald addressed some of these issues.“First, I don’t want them talking to any person they’re not supposed to be talking to, and I let them know your family is who you choose it to be.”

“You can find your grandparents, maybe your great-grandparents… but you can’t make that leap across the ocean like most people of European descent,” he said. “That just means their paper needs to have a different focus. It needs to be more on grandpa and not trying to find that person from the 1600s that came over from wherever. That’s what I’d guide these people to find.”

All of these struggles are considered when McDonald grades the papers, and the guidelines are designed to be broad enough to encompass a wide breadth of topics.

McDonald further discussed other types of issues he sees in students, the most common being those who have a mental or psychological block preventing them from digging deeper.

“There could be some really negative reasons where they don’t want to talk to people, and they just decide ‘I’m not gonna do this,’” he explained. “I’ve found some really not positive information about my family in doing my own research. But even things that aren’t good about your family can still inform you about the kinds of decisions that people made, the opportunities that are there, and the consequences of certain decisions.”

McDonald connected the lessons learned from the project with ways they can be applied today. “I think there’s a real benefit of having the kids all understand how they came across the ocean, that no one sprouted from the Americas, so that they understand their families came here looking for a better opportunity and a better life, just as people are still trying to get into the United States. With the immigration issues we have today, it’s the same thing,” he said. “I think too often Americans, for whatever reason, forget that, and they lose that empathy for people trying to make their situation better.”

McDonald wants students to understand that change is possible, concluding that “There are ways to improve your life. If you don’t like your life, there are ways to make it better. You have agency over your life, at some point, who you choose to hang out with, what kind of job you choose to do, what kind of work are you engaged in, where you’re gonna live.” He added, “It’s important for them to understand that they’re the result of all the decisions of all their ancestors, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t change it.”

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