Southern Vermont College Students Exhibit Genealogical Discoveries at Bennington Museum

November 11, 2011

Southern Vermont College students who participated in the genealogy course, “Exploring the Faces of Diversity,” presented their ancestral findings, including family heirlooms, on Wednesday, December 7, at the Bennington Museum. Along with Museum curator Jamie Franklin, students used DNA testing, census data, records searches, and online methods of research, including ancestry.com, to investigate. Dr. Bennett Greenspan, CEO of FamilyTreeDNA, spoke via Skype.

The SVC course was developed three years ago by Provost Albert DeCiccio, assisted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. Gates has been reporting on genealogical research for the past five years, most notably in his 2006 PBS documentary African American Lives, in Finding Oprah’s Roots, Finding Your Own (2007), and in Faces of America (2010). His work with DeCiccio has resulted in SVC being the first school in the nation which offers a course based on his methodology—one which emphasizes student engagement in their course of study and student persistence to and through college. In the first year the course was offered, Gates visited the Bennington Museum to view the student exhibit and then delivered a lecture on the importance of the work for educators.

“It thrills me to watch first-year students learn surprising facts about their family history,” said DeCiccio. “Exploring the Faces of Diversity teaches them so much about themselves, about difference, and about how we are all so connected.” Even curator Franklin of the Bennington Museum was excited about his DNA work. According to DeCiccio, he hopes to confirm a rumored family connection to Benjamin Franklin, but Curator Franklin has already learned that he is descended from a passenger who came to America on the Mayflower.

“What’s special about this year is that we all underwent admixture DNA testing, which has shown us which of the four main groups we have within us: European, Sub Saharan/African, East Asian, and Native American,” said Provost DeCiccio. “What was most surprising to me about my DNA results was that I am 93 percent European,” freshman Natalie Cole from Shaftsbury, Vt., wrote on the project’s Facebook page. Cole’s mother’s family is all Russian born. Another student in the class, Angie Rodriguez, found out that she was 47% African, 42% European, and 9% Native American. Gates himself is about 50% European and 50% African.

This course is part of the Quest for Success first-year student program in which students are enrolled in a semester-long course of study with a focus on community service. The Exploring the Faces of Diversity exhibit will move from the Bennington Museum to the SVC Campus in January. “We hope to get Skip Gates, who is near the end of taping another PBS Series, up here next month to meet the students and to talk with the community,” DeCiccio added.  

To learn more about DNA testing through Family Tree DNA, go to http://www.familytreedna.com/.