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Growing the family tree: Students find their roots in genealogy course

A sense of belonging. Greater self- awareness. History made personal. These are just a few of the expressed outcomes of students who delved into their family history during a first-year seminar course focused on genealogy, history and personal identity.

“We were foreigners,” writes Laura Passmore about her family in her reflection paper for the course. “I was amazed by all the different countries in my background.”

“[This class] allowed me to uncover the past that I never knew,” writes Jazz Baker, a first-year student from Harrisburg. Baker relished playing the family historian and recounting her findings to her mother and four sisters.

Starting from scratch
Both students began the class with little to no knowledge of their family histories. They learned important research skills, practiced discerning historical documents and began their pursuit of their family heritage.

Baker uncovered that her family emigrated from England in 1635 and some of her black ancestors fought as freed men with the PA Colored Troops in the Civil War. She found family draft cards for World War II and was delighted when her research revealed that present day family members were unknowingly following in the footsteps of ancestors from generations ago. Baker discovered, for example, three generations of sheriffs in her family line and noted that her sister is currently a probation officer.  

“It is one thing to think you know who you are, and it is another thing to actually be certain of it,” Baker wrote in her reflection paper. “I can’t say that I dug deep enough to uncover any information that I did not want to know, but I can say that I have a greater appreciation for where I came from and what my family went through.”

Passmore, a native of Rochester, N.Y. with six siblings, discovered that her family came to the United States through Canada and was surprised to discover that her ancestors played roles in significant historical events like the Revolutionary War. “Discovering the story of my family suddenly made history seem personal,” said Passmore. “Once you find out your great-great grandfather fought in World War II, you will never think about that historical event in the same way again.”

And knowing your past is an excellent way to better understand yourself, Passmore reflects. To better understand ourselves, Passmore challenges, “Maybe we need to look outside our lives, and even outside our lifetimes.”

Appreciating family roots
Greater self-awareness was certainly a goal of the course, admits Joseph Huffman, distinguished professor of European history, and creator and teacher of the “Growing the Family Tree: Genealogy, History and Personal Identity” seminar. Huffman challenged his students to ponder who they were and where they came from, noting that the answers would “go a long way toward shaping your sense of personal identity and location in the world.”

By the end of the course, Passmore agreed that her ancestors had an indirect but very important influence on her life. She wisely theorized that family trees are depicted inaccurately. Ancestors, she explains, are typically shown as various branches when really they should be illustrated as roots. “We’re not just standing here with nothing holding us down,” Passmore notes. “We are the trunk and our ancestors and their experiences are our roots.” Those roots are critical to growing a family, giving it its distinguishing characteristics and propelling it towards particular customs and traditions.

Both Baker and Passmore are interested in doing additional research. Baker thinks maybe she has some unexplored family roots in Germany and Passmore is curious as to whether there’s any truth to family legend that she’s related to Abraham Lincoln.

“You may think that your family has a boring and ordinary story,” writes Passmore. “But the truth is that there is no such thing. All our families have fascinating stories just waiting to be discovered.”

Photograph by Megan Dobinson `16.

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