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Anita Foeman

Faculty Q & A: Anita Foeman

The DNA Discussion Project

In the 11 years she has taught intercultural communications, Professor of Communication Studies Anita Foeman has observed that students - and most people, for that matter - are willing to share narratives about themselves and their families because, “they are longing to be known, to feel that someone cares about them and about their story.”

Since 2006, Foeman has undertaken a project that takes a closer look at individuals’ family narratives and compares their “stories” to what DNA testing tells them about their ethnic heritage - often with surprising results. Her goal: to encourage people to “…talk about diversity in a new, positive and engaging way.”

What is the DNA Discussion Project?

I teach a course on “Advanced Intercultural Communication,” and students in that class are working on this project. Essentially, we are comparing what a person believes to be his or her ethnic ancestry with what a DNA test reveals.

We interview participants about their families’ backgrounds prior to the test. We then collect a small sample of cells for DNA testing, and within a few weeks, we are provided with a blueprint of the individual’s DNA.

What does the “blueprint” actually tell about the individual?

The particular DNA test that I used identifies the locations of a person’s ancestors, specifically if they originated in the Americas, Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa or Asia. The lab compares the individual’s DNA with profiles it has developed from the DNA of people who have lived in those regions for thousands of years.

The company provides a chart that illustrates what percentage of an individual’s ancestry is from those geographic areas. The data is 98% accurate but often surprising.

What have been some of your results?

Most people associate themselves with one category, but of the 30 results we have, only two individuals were reported to have ancestors from only one racial group. Many African Americans will assume that they have Native American ancestry, but that doesn’t always prove to be the case. Most whites will generally say they have a mix of Europeans, but, in fact, most whites I’ve tested have some African ancestry, which isn’t surprising, if a person’s family has been in this country for 100 years or more.

What do you plan to do with this information? I plan to display the DNA data along with different individual’s narratives and racial profiles on a kiosk in a central location on campus. Eventually, we would like to install several around the University, as well as create traveling exhibits to area schools, so students could talk about their ancestry and what it means to live a multicultural society.

What are the implications of this project?

This project has led to some very interesting discussions about people, their families and America’s diversity and has implications for a number of disciplines, including psychology, anthropology and biology. It is a way to talk about ancestry and race that’s not negative, and, in light of our President’s own family narrative involving different races and even different continents, I think it’s fairly timely.

A graduate of Defiance College in Ohio, Foeman earned her master’s and doctorate degrees in communications with an emphasis on organizations from Temple University.

Since 1982, she has taught at West Chester and provided training for other academic institutions, corporations, mental health and non-profit agencies in a wide range of communication themes, including general communication effectiveness, diversity and public presentation.

For more information on the DNA Discussion Project, go to: