Professor Rick Lopez with students in his kitchen
As a final celebration, the students met in their professor’s kitchen to read each other’s essays, and then to cook and enjoy family recipes.

Alexis Chavez-Salinas ’22 was inside the Ellis Island Immigration Museum when he turned and noticed his mother sobbing in a corner. Confused, he asked what was wrong. “Do you not see it?” his mother replied. “All the pain and hardship these people had to go through to get to America.”

Chavez-Salinas shared this story as his final presentation in the First-Year Seminar “Finding Your Roots.” New this academic year, the course wove together history lessons, family interviews and archival research—and even DNA testing—taking inspiration from the PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr., which traces the backgrounds and DNA results of celebrities.

The 15 students spent the fall semester researching immigration, census and land records; creating family trees; writing essays about their discoveries; and, with College funding, testing their own genetic origins through As a final celebration, they gathered on Orchard Street, where their professor, Rick A. López ’93, hosted them in his kitchen as they read each other’s essays and cooked and shared family recipes—macaroni and cheese, scallion pancakes, mashed potatoes.

The dinner capped three days of final presentations. Chavez-Salinas used the time to share his family’s immigration story. His parents—born and raised in Mexico City—gave up their careers as physicians to move to the United States when he was young.

“When my mom was in Ellis Island, she was reliving her own experiences,” he said, “as well as thinking about her ancestors from Germany who came through Ellis Island.” Class assignments spurred Chavez-Salinas to learn about his German side. “This wasn’t a regular, boring writing class,” he said at the end of his presentation, as classmates nodded in agreement. “It allowed me to look at myself completely differently. Classes like this are why I chose to come to Amherst.”

López, a professor of history and the dean of new students, created “Finding Your Roots” to teach history through genealogy, and to teach the research, writing and thinking skills necessary for success at Amherst. (The students were so new to college that in class, they sometimes forgot what to call him. “Mr. López,” one began. “I mean, Professor López. I mean, Dean López.”) In developing the course, López connected with Andy Anderson in Academic Technology Services, who lent expertise in genealogy research.

During the final presentations, one student explored ethical issues around DNA results that show Native American heritage. Another described his great-great-grandfather’s 1906 land purchase of 40 acres in Alabama. Yet another talked about her father’s student activism in 1980s Korea. And one student explained how her Mexican ancestors adopted a new nationality: “The border changed—and they became American with it.”

Faith Merritt ’22 talked about leaving home to attend one of the best high schools in North Carolina, where many of her friends were the children of African immigrants. “I felt like I wasn’t black enough for my friends back home,” she said, “and I wasn’t African enough for my friends at school.” The “Finding Your Roots” seminar—including the profound experience of seeing her African heritage quantified in DNA results—led to a realization: “To be black is to be me,” she concluded. “My experience is a part of the black experience.”

After the presentations, López offered some final advice to students: Go to office hours three times per semester at minimum. Work with the librarians. Bring lessons from one course into others—and also bring in your own voice, your own past, your own story. “Anything you do that’s personal,” he insisted, “is also intellectual.” 

pots and pans on a stove

More Photos

Additional photos of the celebration marking the end of the First-Year Seminar "Finding Your Roots."

Photo Credit: Maria Stenzel