Sankofa helping students learn about their ancestry through DNA testing

In the quest to understanding one’s history, when all documents are gone and hope towards finding an answer is thin, there remains one unbreakable link to the past: DNA. (MIKI Yoshihito/Flickr)

In the quest to understanding one’s history, when all documents are gone and hope towards finding an answer is thin, there remains one unbreakable link to the past: DNA.

The University of Connecticut Sankofa club is holding open applications for those who want to learn more about their ancestry through DNA testing. Kayla Edwards, a fifth-semester Africana studies major and president of the student Sankofa organization, said that the club is “doing something that’s never been done before.” 

The club started around three years ago and has set its sights on creating events and conversations that it feels haven't been conducted through other campus organizations, Edwards said.

Edwards’ own trials as an African American trying to figure out her identity spurred her to help others understand their lineage.

The idea to conduct DNA testing started last semester between Edwards and the club’s treasurer Jasmine Alexander-Brookings, a seventh-semester urban youth development major and Africana studies minor. They ultimately applied for funding from the undergraduate student government and got it.

“This is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time, for ourselves,” said Edwards. 

The testing is, unfortunately, very expensive. The test costs $300 per person, so only eight applicants of the 86 and counting who have already applied will be accepted into the program. The criteria for getting chosen is based on one’s passion and ethnic diversity. 

Students can apply up until Sept. 25 and will hear back on Oct. 1.

Edwards and the Sankofa club’s hope is that these DNA tests become an annual occurrence for people of all races and ethnicities, so that everyone can understand their lineage and ancestry better.

As somebody who is African American, descended from slaves, and that’s about as far as you can trace your lineage back – that’s something that sits with you. It’s a missing piece of your identity that you’re never able to fill.
— Sankofa president Kayla Edwards, on the role and importance of DNA testing.

“As somebody who is African American, descended from slaves, and that’s about as far as you can trace your lineage back – that’s something that sits with you," Edwards said. "It’s a missing piece of your identity that you’re never able to fill.”

She said she wants to know what African countries her ancestors are from, not just from what American states. Her family is from South Carolina and Alabama.

African Americans face a unique challenge in discovering their roots due to a complete lack of documentation caused by slavery.

“It’s not that I’m ‘just black,’ I am African American," Edwards said. "I do have this specific culture. It just feels like there’s always been something missing.”

The search for identity as a minority poses the unique burden on the African American community. Edwards said that at the very least, whether or not any future inquiry will be conducted into one’s ancestry, “it’s more comforting to know.” She spoke about how she hopes to achieve a “sense of identity” through the tests.

When living in a country and university that promotes our unity, sometimes one can lose sight of their individual stories that make up the whole. Edwards believes that there is an absolute disconnect between African Americans and their heritage on campus.

The Black Student Association (an overarching organization for black students), West Indian Student Organization, and the African Student Association exist on campus, but Edwards believes there isn’t a detailed forum to talk about African American culture in particular.

“When I got here, I felt like I was the last African American on the planet,” Edwards said. “Being here has really made my whole identity crisis worse.”

She said she believes culture grounds people and gives them roots.

Reminiscing over circumstances in which she felt lost as a kid, such as school heritage projects, Edwards said that, “My hope for other kids is that they don’t have to feel that way. They don’t have to feel how I felt.” 

When the idea of America being a “melting-pot” came up, Edwards fancied the nation as more of a salad bowl with different, distinct components that are special on their own, but necessary together to create a salad. 

Edwards said the ultimate importance for understanding one’s past is to have a better idea of who they are going forward.

“The only way to change the future is to understand your past. The only way to change America’s future is to know where America comes from,” Edwards said.


Brett Steinberg is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at brett.steinberg@uconn.edu. He tweets @officialbrett.