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‘I honestly thought of myself as simply American’: DNA testing shocks college students

Students at West Chester University in Pennsylvania prepare saliva samples for DNA testing. (Melissa Rudolph)
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More than 1,500 people have had genetic testing done at West Chester University, part of a campuswide DNA Discussion Project. Anita Foeman, a professor of communication studies at the public university in Pennsylvania, hoped to use the project to build connections among people. Students in a freshman honors class took the test this fall, and many were surprised when the results upended their self-identity.

Read more about the class here:

A class aims to bring a divided country together with an unusual approach: DNA testing

Robert Langel

Robert Langel was somewhat skeptical about Anita Foeman’s “self awareness” class.

He found it a little nerve-racking starting as a freshman at West Chester, two hours from home in rural central Pennsylvania, where everyone he knows is very conservative. He voted for Donald Trump, and he was careful about what he said in class because he felt like an outsider, knowing most people on campus are liberal.

When asked about his ancestry, he said, “I  honestly thought of myself as simply American.”

His mother had told him her family was Pennsylvania Dutch, so he assumed his DNA results would show 75 percent German, or Dutch.

His results really surprised him: “It was only about one-third Western European. One-third British. Fifteen percent Eastern European. Thirteen percent a hodgepodge of Italian, Greek, European Jewish, even a percentage of Middle Eastern.”

“The 1 percent Middle Eastern — that was — that was a little shocking,” he said.

When he told his mother, she changed the subject and said she had to go finish a chore. “She was surprised,” he said.

He added: “I have no prejudice against people who come from the Middle East. I know there are a lot of stigmas around that.”

Langel said he is glad that he took the class, appreciating what he learned about other political perspectives. “It was really nice,” he said.

“This class really opened up not only how I view the world, but how I can view different perspectives of people and how they view the world.”

Amari Gilmore

The results of her DNA test were almost exactly what she had expected — 80 percent African, 20 percent European — but Amari Gilmore was surprised by how emotional it was to get them. She was sad, proud and “a tad bit angry almost. You can clearly see how the slave trade worked into my background, how I ended up here. It’s not a happy story.”

But she was happy to have the results. She is the first in her family to learn anything about their heritage.

Her father had cheered to hear that they had Zulu ancestors — he wanted to be a warrior, she said. When she saw Ghana and Scandinavia turn up in her profile, she suddenly understood why her face has the shape that it does.

She had been told that people who had owned her father’s family were of Irish descent, and her last name is Irish. So when she saw in the DNA results 5 percent Irish, she thought of “those stories of people intermingling, possible rape, the slave trade. It’s a sad story. And I own it now; my family went through this.”

“My ancestors were strong,” Gilmore said. “They did the dang thing and came and really survived. So it’s sad but beautiful: I am built on a wall of strength.”

Doménica Castro

Doménica Castro has always told people she was Spanish and Italian. Raised in southern New Jersey, she knew that her grandfather on her mother’s side had come from Sicily, and that her father had moved to the United States from Colombia. Her father’s side of the family speaks rapid-fire Spanish, and her political leanings were strongly influenced by being Hispanic. Immigration issues became a cornerstone for her. She supported Hillary Clinton.

But when she got her results, she was astonished to learn she is more British than Spanish. She had no idea of any British ancestry in her family at all.

Her father was upset by it, she said.

“To me, it was, ‘Oh, cool! Six percent African, 7 percent Native American, and — the more, the merrier!’ ”

The results suggested 33 percent Greek/Italian, 17 percent British, 11 percent Spanish — but no German, which was curious because her grandmother often talks about their German heritage. Castro said she thinks that some of her older relatives would not welcome the African heritage.

She said she wouldn’t exactly change her ethnic identity — the Italian and Colombian cultural influences, the pride her dad and others feel, the foods and traditions she loves are so much a part of her. But she’ll know she has more cultural links than she realized, and use those to connect with other people.

“There’s such xenophobia in America, a climate of fear because of terrorism and immigration,” Castro said. “It’s unfortunate because I think some Americans forget that America is a melting pot. To be an American is more of a state of mind.

“As far as ethnicity goes, we’re all really mutts at the end of the day, different cultures and ethnicities from around the world,” she said.