EXCEL course results in renewed family connection

FOR RELEASE
2008-09-05
Huntington, Ind.—Heather Jones received an unexpected benefit from one of her Huntington University courses – a relationship with her grandfather.

Jones, 36, is pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in business management through the university’s EXCEL Adult Degree Programs. This fall, she took a course called “Writing Oral Family History” with Dr. Kevin Miller, associate professor of communication. When Miller assigned the class to interview a family member to obtain family history information and write a paper, Jones was at a loss.

“Most of my family is so far away,” said Jones, a resident of Marion, Ind. “I called my mom in Las Vegas and asked her who I should contact. She suggested my grandfather who lives in Wabash.”

Jones’ mother, Julie Santo, was adopted, and the grandfather she suggested to Jones is her biological father, Clarence Cox. Jones had met her grandfather once – more than 20 years ago, so she felt unsure as to how he would respond to her request for an interview. Over the phone, Cox agreed to meet with her.

“I was nervous all the way to his house,” she said, “and he was waiting for me at the door. This was an opportunity for me. I had a reason to go to his door. It was no loss if it didn’t go any further.”

Jones describes the first meeting as “awkward” initially because neither knew what to say to the other. Jones was not sure where to begin because she had limited knowledge of her mother’s biological family history.

“I wasn’t there long before the awkwardness went away,” she said. “We totally bonded.”

Jones and Cox discovered commonalities that helped establish their relationship. They prefer pie over cake, like the same vegetables, have open personalities, enjoy affection and have some similar physical features.

What was supposed to be a one-hour meeting became a three-and-a-half hour meeting.

“At the end of our time together, we hugged and said we loved each other,” Jones said.

When she came back for the second meeting, Cox told her she was welcome back anytime. What began as a class assignment morphed into weekly visits. Jones still audiotapes their conversations.

“We sit and chit-chat about everything under the sun,” Jones said. “There isn’t a subject we don’t talk about. Usually, his wife cooks me something like zucchini pie. At some point, we go out in the garden, and they send home vegetables with me and plants from their greenhouse. It’s the greatest feeling every time I’m over there.”

Jones has given her grandfather family photos. She initially gave him four, and when she discovered he spent a significant amount of time looking at those photos, she made an entire album for him.

Other family members also have benefited from Jones’ relationship with Cox. Jones has introduced her grandfather to her twin sister, and he has introduced Jones to his sister.

“I think I’ve opened up the doors of comfort for some of the others,” Jones said. “We felt like we would be infringing, and he felt like he was infringing so no one made the effort until now.”

As an added bonus, Jones earned an “A” on her paper for “Writing Oral Family History.”

“For a class I was dreading, it’s turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” she said. “It’s been an awesome experience.”

For Dr. Kevin Miller, Jones’ experience was a first in his class. He said students tend to approach family members they know well.

“I was moved by how obviously meaningful this generational and genetic connection was for Heather and for her grandfather,” Miller said. “The bonds of family-hood mysteriously transcend the alignments and realignments in families that sometimes leave members of a family geographically and biographically removed from each other for even decades.”


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Huntington University is a comprehensive Christian college of the liberal arts offering graduate and undergraduate programs in more than 70 academic concentrations. U.S.News & World Report ranks Huntington among the best colleges in the Midwest. Founded in 1897 by the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, Huntington University is located on a contemporary, lakeside campus in northeast Indiana. The University is a member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU).  
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