West Chester DNA project to show one community, ancestry

This article can be found published on the Daily Local News‘ website.
West Chester University's DNA Discussion Project is trying to connect people together through learning their ethnic makeup with DNA testing. (DNA Discussion Project)

West Chester University’s DNA Discussion Project is trying to connect people together through learning their ethnic makeup with DNA testing. (DNA Discussion Project)

WEST CHESTER — In a time when racial tension is at a high in the country, West Chester University is out to show residents everyone may have more in common than previously believed.

Encouraging the West Chester community to discuss diversity in a new, positive and engaging way, the DNA Discussion Project — started in 2006 — provides people with DNA test kits to learn about their own past.

“For the last 10 years, we’ve been doing a larger project, called the DNA Project,” said Anita Foeman, the lead investigator of the project. “We ask people to tell us what they know about their racial background and then we DNA test them for their ancestry and share the results with them.”

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With the goal of the project to get the community discussing diversity, it’s causing people to share their rich background, which can be very similar to others.

“Oftentimes the results are quite different than what they expect,” Foeman said. “With that, we use it as an opportunity to re-imagine race because today, people see race as very divisional — people in different camps without much overlap.”

Foeman is concerned that such thinking makes people think that they are at odds with others and are completely different.

Most of the time, that isn’t the case and that’s what the project is trying to show.

“This really gives lots of people the opportunity to talk about diversity,” Foeman said. “It’s a very positive, sort of inclusive way, to talk about something that needs to get talked about and is very difficult.”

The DNA Project has tested over 700 people, but the new One University is where they are now testing people across the campus at the university and holding numerous discussions for the people to talk about the findings of their past.

Though classes for the fall semester haven’t started, the new project was kicked off and they have already given out just shy of 100 DNA test kits.

Once more kits come in, the project is open to community members for $120.

“They would be invited in the presentations that we give,” Foeman said. “They would be updated on the research that we’re doing and also included in the actual research project as we look for findings.”

For those who participate in the test, the findings which come back lets the person know the percentages of ethnic heritage.

“People tend to overestimate their European background,” Foeman said. “We have not, so far, found anybody who identified Asian in their background of those who were not Asian or have a parent who is Asian. People don’t tend to think that’s in their background. Asian people have been in this country forever because Native Americans were Asians who walked across the Bering Strait.”

The library at the University also features free Ancestry.com access and participants of the project are encouraged to research their history and bring that information to the discussions.

Some notable members from the community have taken part with the DNA test kit, including West Chester Mayor Carolyn Comitta and university President Greg Weistenstein.

Foeman and co-investigator Bessie Lawton enjoy seeing the surprise on a person’s face when the results come in.

“It’s often so different from what people think,” Foeman said. “It takes people back to their history books and talking to their families and one another.”

As an example, Foeman said she had a participant say she was 100-percent Italian.

Her results showed differently as it came back that she was African-American and European.

It’s what they want this project to continue to do.

“It really challenges some of these stereotypes we have of what it means to be a certain ethnicity,” Foeman said. “In this country, the whole discussion of race relations has really deteriorated and there’s a lot of anger. This is an opportunity for people to come together in a way that really joins them.”

For more information on the project or to see about taking part, visit www.dnadiscussionproject.com.

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Categories: Community, Education, History

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