Former Medill dean, two alumni travel 14,000 miles in search of American identity

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Illustration by Hank Yang

What began as a travel blog by a former Medill dean and his students turned into a book on America’s identity released years later.

Assem Belhadj, Reporter

What began as a travel blog run by a Medill professor and his students turned into a book exploring American identity.

“Genus Americanus: Hitting the Road in Search of America’s Identity,” by former Medill Dean Loren Ghiglione and alumni Alyssa Karas (Medill ’11) and Dan Tham (Medill ’13), was released Oct. 25.

In 2011, Ghiglione decided to create an opportunity for Medill students to travel across America with him during Fall Quarter. The team retraced novelist Mark Twain’s footsteps down the routes he took traversing the country during the 1850s and 1860s, interviewing Americans about their identities along the way.

“I’ve always loved the romance of adventure and the sense of travel that comes with it,” Ghiglione said. “I’ve always believed that travel has the potential to be a transformative educational experience.”

Karas was almost done with her senior year when she got an email from the Medill listserv announcing the opportunity. Although she expected to graduate before the trip would start, she still applied.

Now an associate director of audience development at Vanity Fair, Karas spent the summer doing a fellowship at the Indianapolis Star before embarking on the three-month-long journey in the fall.

“Loren definitely only asked for students… and I was definitely looking to postpone real life as much as I could,” Karas said. “But I just thought it sounded great and I’m grateful every day.”

Tham, now a CNN International producer, had just returned to the U.S. after studying abroad in India when he received the email. He said the opportunity was “too tantalizing to resist.”

The trip was a way for Tham to not only explore other Americans’ identities but also to explore his own, he said.

“I’m Vietnamese American, I’m gay, I was raised Buddhist,” Tham said. “In the context of where I grew up — majority White, Mormon, heterosexual — I was considered… I guess what we would call an ‘other,’” Tham said.

The implications of Tham’s identity were not absent from the road trip. When the group members reached Marion, Indiana, the site of a historic 1930s lynching, they met a historian at a Japanese restaurant.

Tham, the only Asian American in the group, was the only one given chopsticks by the all-White staff.

“It made me feel uncomfortable,” Tham said. “It felt like I was being marked as someone different than my travel companions.”

Learning to better understand his own identity was primarily why Ghiglione pursued the road trip. For Ghiglione, who is of Italian descent, he wanted to reconnect with distant family members and learn more about the Italian American immigrant experience.

Ghiglione also developed an interest in America’s Indigenous communities, shaped by years of colonization, and worked on the Native American Outreach and Inclusion Task Force. The group also wrote about various immigrant communities, their struggles, and their importance to the fabric of America.

“Another (takeaway) was the enduring power of racism… it doesn’t seem to go away,” Ghiglione said. “By the same token, I think America is an idea of a country trying to get better… and future generations are better equipped to handle issues on race.”

Collectively, the group came into contact with various identities and uncovered forgotten histories. The group examined many dark forces in America’s past, many of which still impact American politics today.

“It’s always better to know what happened and to diminish our ignorance because I think it could be dangerous if we forget,” Tham said.

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