Seeking your roots

This article originally appeared in the 2009 edition of Abroadly Speaking, a magazine produced by students and supported by the Study Abroad Office. The article talks about what analysts at the Institute of International Education call a "heritage seeker," a student who is drawn to study abroad in a particular country and culture "not because it is unfamiliar and new, but rather because it is somewhat familiar."

When graduate student Abrefi Assaire told her parents she wanted to study in Ghana, the country her family left when she was a young girl, they didn't think she was serious.

"They weren't sure I would survive," she said, laughing. "They thought I would be complaining all the time."

Nicole Anderson in China with her mother, father and sister

Nicole Anderson became the first in three generations in her family to visit China. 

But Assaire wanted to go to a country where she could trace her family roots. She is what analysts at the Institute of International Education call a "heritage seeker," a student who is drawn to study abroad in a particular country and culture "not because it is unfamiliar and new, but rather because it is somewhat familiar."

For Assaire, going to Africa meant visiting the place where her mother, Eunice, met her father, James, before they immigrated to Dallas. It meant visiting the place where she was born yet never fully experienced.

Her father had left Ghana first and worked odd jobs for four years in the U.S. until he saved enough money to send for Assaire, her mother and her three sisters.

Like Assaire, the majority of heritage seekers in study abroad tends to be first-generation Americans, or second-generation, said Lia Haisley, the advising coordinator for the university's Study Abroad Office.

"It's not just academic," she said of heritage seeking. "It's very, very personal."

Junior Nicole Anderson, another heritage seeker, is the granddaughter of an exiled soldier. Immediately following World War II, Chinese citizens battled each other in a civil war, which lasted four years. The Chinese Nationalist Party, with the backing of the Western world, fought the country's communist government but was eventually exiled to Taiwan. These displaced families rose a generation of children who would never see their homeland.

"(My grandfather) was forced to flee to Taiwan and brought my grandma with him," Anderson said.

While neither her grandparents nor her mother had been to China since, as a student in a language study abroad program, Anderson became the first in three generations to visit the once off-limits country.

At the end of Anderson's program, her mother, father and sister flew into China.

"It was a very emotional day for my mom when she got to see everyone," she said. "I had wanted this for my mom for so long."

Perhaps the most unexpected part of Anderson's summer in China, she says, was meeting someone she describes as a "twin," her 23-year-old second cousin with whom she lived for three weeks in Beijing.

"She is the 'Asian version of me,'" she said. "Of course there was a language barrier because she couldn't speak English and my Chinese struggles at times, so it was quite funny (communicating)."

The two still keep up with each other on a webcam, and next winter, her cousin plans to visit Texas for Anderson's graduation.

Assaire also had the opportunity to reunite with family.

While her program toured major regions in Ghana learning the arts and culture of each village, she also had the chance to spend more than a week with once-lost aunts, uncles and cousins. Her own relatives even became her homestay family when the group passed through Kumasi, her family's hometown.

Natalie Bartush, an assistant director for the Study Abroad Office, said heritage-seeking students more easily gain the linguistic and cultural competence of an adult in their country of study. This experience brings immeasurable value to their academic and future professional lives, she said.

Although Ghana certainly felt like a foreign land, Assaire was more culturally prepared than her classmates, she said -- especially with the food and language.

"All of us had homestay families and they were cooking us traditional Ghanaian food. They were told (by the program coordinators) to feed us whatever they were eating and to not make anything American," Assaire said. "I was already exposed to the type of food at home (in the United States)."

Contrary to her parents' previous concerns, Assaire found she had no reason to complain in Ghana. The summer gave her a greater understanding of the life her parents had before they immigrated to Texas.

She saw people -- her own relatives -- living without modern comforts, such as electricity and running water, which seemed essentials in her daily life in the United States. Even more of an impact, she said, came from witnessing Ghanaians who were in dire poverty, out of work and alone.

"I want to do something about the poverty that I saw," she said. "I want to go back soon."