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College Students Finding Their Roots

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

As director of international education and chair of the Black studies committee at Florida Memorial University (FMU), Dr. Keshia Abraham wanted to use Black History Month to create an academic experience for students of color to think about themselves within a global context.

Dr. Keshia Abraham, fourth from right, stands with a group of women who discovered their heritage through AfricanAncestry.com (Photo courtesy of Florida Memorial University)

Dr. Keshia Abraham, third from right, stands with a group of women who discovered their heritage through AfricanAncestry.com (Photo courtesy of Florida Memorial University)

“We wanted the students to have an opportunity to talk about their background and heritage, family, culture, and have access to that information,” explains Abraham, an English professor and dean of the school of arts and sciences at FMU.

So, with a grant from the Mellon Global Citizenship Program — an initiative that helps select HBCUs, among other institutions, to “develop, implement and expand global citizenship education activities” — Abraham began to search for genetic testing firms to help students use DNA to explore their African ancestral roots.

The Ultimate Selfie

She considered well-known commercial companies but ultimately decided on AfricanAncestry.com.

“Because of the specificity of AfricanAncestry.com, we thought that was definitely the right choice to make,” Abraham says.

She was referring to the company’s promise — using a swab of saliva to match DNA with a database of indigenous African genetic sequences — to enable customers to “trace your ancestry back to a specific present-day African country of origin, and often to specific African ethnic groups dating back more than 500 years ago.”

With that in mind, for Black History Month in 2014, Abraham led an effort for FMU to partake in an AfricanAncestry.com project called “The Ultimate Selfie.”

Other institutions that have participated in the program include Stanford University, Rutgers University, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB).

Courtney J. Jones Carney, director of Interprofessional Student Learning & Service Initiatives (ISLSI) at UMB, says she taps about $1,000 per year from a fund for diversity and inclusion activities to offer the genetic tests to four students every Black History Month.

“Even though it was somewhat pricey it was worth it,” Carney says. “I think we spend a great deal of money on frivolous material things, and this is something I did not mind spending the money on because it would give students answers to questions that have been unknown to them in the past.”

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The program at UMB has benefited students such as Marla Yee, 29, a dental student whose father is Chinese and whose mother is Jamaican. Yee won an African Ancestry DNA test through a raffle at a campus event hosted last year by a student group called United Students of African Descent.

The test enabled Yee to illuminate her lineage on her mother’s side of the family.

“I didn’t know anything about my mother’s side,” says Yee, who is from Jamaica.

The test revealed that Yee’s maternal ancestry goes back to Cameroon.

“I had no idea where I would be from, so it was just an exciting experience finding that information,” Yee says. “I shared it with the rest of my family and they really appreciated that information.”

Yee says the results have altered the way she sees others from Cameroon.

“If I meet someone from Cameroon I say, ‘Oh, I traced my ancestry back to Cameroon,’ and make a joke like, ‘Oh, we might be distant cousins,’” Yee says. “I guess I look at [Cameroon] more endearingly than other African countries.”

Gina Paige, co-founder and CEO of African Ancestry, says The Ultimate Selfie program — which is designed for middle school through college-aged youths — is about education and empowerment.

“Forming relationships with diverse colleges and universities allows us to reach young adults at a time when they are growing in their identities and supplementing their educational activities with experiences that better prepare them for life after school,” Paige says.

“You can definitely expect to see more in the future,” Paige says of The Ultimate Selfie program. For instance, there are plans to offer the program at Northern Virginia Community College, a company rep says.

At FMU, Abraham has arranged to offer the program to 10 students — five male and five female — every Black History Month.

Among the FMU students who have partaken in the program is Courtney Wright, who first learned about it in 2015 as a senior while taking an African literature class with Abraham.

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Wright — who says she discovered through her genetic test that she is a descendant of the Yoruba and Fulani people of Nigeria — says the test sparked an interest in learning more about her heritage.

“I wouldn’t say I felt more of a connection but I feel I have something more to discuss,” Wright says, explaining that previously she — like most African-Americans — knew very little about her ancestors beyond the fact that they were brought to North America through the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The experience gave her a greater awareness of how African-Americans differ from Africans on campus.

“Many of them knew their origin,” Wright says of African students at FMU. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, I just found out.’”

Wright recounted how one Nigerian student gave her a Nigerian flag pin and said, “Hey, my sister.”

“It was cool,” says Wright, who is currently in graduate school and seeking to become a schoolteacher.

Abraham also went through the genetic testing herself and discovered through her “reveal” — a public event in which the genetic results are released — that she had a maternal ancestor who is of the Temne people from present-day Sierra Leone.

Previously, Abraham says she had always felt a connection with southern Africa and that it was interesting to discover that her lineage hailed from a part of the continent that she hadn’t given much consideration.

“It made me wonder about the rest of the story,” Abraham says. “How did she become my ancestor? What migration did she go through? What other African people had she come in contact with? Why have other parts of the continent resonated with me?”

Doubt and skepticism

Not everyone, however, is convinced that the results that AfricanAncestry.com delivers are as meaningful as they are made to seem.

The skeptics include Dr. Bert Ely, director of the Center for Science Education in the Department of Biology at the University of South Carolina.

Ely first took up the issue with several colleagues in a 2006 article titled “African-American mitochondrial DNAs often match mtDNAs (shorthand for mitochondrial DNAs) found in multiple African ethnic groups.”

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The paper found that “few African Americans might be able to trace their mtDNA lineages to a particular region of Africa, and even fewer will be able to trace their mtDNA to a single ethnic group.”

“The basic problem for the mitochondrial DNA is that you find these common types in a lot of different ethnic groups,” Ely says. “As more and more mixing occurs in West Africa, it just gets more and more muddled and if you look at the history of migration of people in West Africa, it all makes sense.

“And then, if you think about it, for many African-Americans, their ancestors going back many generations are gonna be people who came from all different parts of West Africa, because they were mixed on the plantations originally and people have been mixing since then,” says Ely.“The true answer I think for any African-American is: You have lots of ancestors from many different ethnic groups all the way from Angola up to Senegal.”

Dr. Rick Kittles, scientific director at African Ancestry, says the findings of Ely’s paper are “consistent with what you would find if you had a limited and skewed database.”

Kittles notes that the paper was based on no more than 4,000 samples — a fraction of those used by African Ancestry — and contends that Ely’s sampling strategies were “opportunistic and not scientific.”

Kittles describes AfricanAncestry.com’s database as “the most comprehensive database of African populations in the world, consisting of more than 30,000 samples and is structured across self-reported ethnicity, geography and language.”

“Our analyses are robust and provide results with statistical confidence,” Kittles says. “We first look for exact matches and then perform a likelihood estimation of the most likely place of shared ancestry.

“If we don’t find an identical match we then look at the most related sequences in the database and perform a likelihood estimation of the most likely match,” Kittles says. “By doing this we provide an estimate of statistical confidence in our findings.”

Ely counters: “If you have identical matches in multiple ethnic groups and no additional criteria, frequency of the identical match in a particular ethnic group will not provide a very satisfying answer.”

Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at [email protected].

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