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Roots Pilgrimage Ryan Doty’s summer passion project explored his family lineage through poetry and photography.

IMG_8630wp-1024x768 Roots PilgrimageRyan Doty ’26 standing on an overlook just outside of Widemouth Bay in Cornwall, England

“It’s like digging up a plant you thought was long dead, but the roots were still intact and vibrantly alive.”

~ Ryan Doty ’26

Ryan Doty ’26 left his hometown of Tipton, Michigan, on April 29 on a mission: to trace his family lineage across Europe, using poetry and photography to capture his reflections along the way.

Doty, a chemistry major with minors in creative writing and studio art, began delving into his family history a few years ago and said it quickly became an all-consuming passion to learn more about his origins.

“This curiosity grew into a slight obsession,” Doty said, “and I began to explore all sections of my family tree. Over the past few years, I honestly can’t remember how many county courthouses I visited, sifting through their microfilm sheets and printing off scanned copies of old documents.”

Doty began connecting with relatives he found from DNA tests and eventually combined this newfound interest with his love of photography, specifically photo restoration work through Adobe Photoshop. Doty created a small business that helps others find their families and see old photos in new lights called Images & Ancestors LLC. He founded the company as a freshman in high school and still works with people on photography and family history requests in his spare time.

The idea for the trip was sparked during a conversation in Fall Term 2022 with Doty’s friend and fellow Johnson Scholar, Jess Kishbaugh ’24, who had used her Johnson Scholar Summer Enhancement Funds to embark on a trip across the United States photographing various American cities and emulating the ideas strewn throughout Robert Frank’s “The Americans.” Doty, a Johnson Scholar, decided to combine his passion for genealogy with his planned minors and head to some of the places in his family tree where his ancestors lived prior to their immigration to the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Johnson Enhancement Funds aim to decrease financial barriers so Johnson Scholars may access a variety of domestic, international and virtual internships and research opportunities. The funds are intended to provide students with the freedom to shape their own career and professional development while exposing them to new cultures, making them more competitive job applicants and allowing them to develop personal passions — in Doty’s case, writing and photography.

“I’ve found that writing, no matter how it may read to others, is cathartic to me, and allows me to release any troubled or aboundingly happy emotions onto a page with lines that only I know the true meaning of,” Doty said. “I also found photography to be a keystone to my life and existence as an individual. I cherish the feeling I’ll always have when I snap the perfect photo or find the right angle. My mother actually majored in photojournalism in college and taught me how to respect the art of photography and really allowed me to develop in that regard.”

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“We are so grateful for the support the Johnson Program provides students, both through the mentoring program and with Johnson Enhancement Funds, as they explore their passions across a wide range of interests,” said Elizabeth Knapp, director of the Johnson Program and professor of Earth and environmental geoscience. “It is an honor to be able to work with incredible students like Ryan as they develop and expand their personal and professional goals.”

Doty and his mother, Lisa, started their trip in London, making their way through the United Kingdom, Ireland, Italy, Switzerland and France.

“It’s like digging up a plant you thought was long dead, but the roots were still intact and vibrantly alive,” Doty said of exploring Cornwall, England, from where part of his family immigrated to the United States in the 19th century. Doty said sharing the experience with his mother was incredibly special.

“Most of the areas we went to actually stemmed from her side of the family,” Doty said. “Being together, stepping foot on the soil that generations of our family had centuries prior — it was all just so overwhelmingly beautiful.”

IMG_7848wp-576x768 Roots PilgrimageDoty on the beach in St. Ives, England.

Doty said he was inspired by various singer-songwriters as he crafted the poems that chronicled his journey, as well as literary works such as Robert Wood Lynn’s “Mothman Apologia,” Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology” and others he encountered during a prior internship at W&L’s Shenandoah literary magazine.

“I really don’t think there’s anywhere quite like W&L. Out of all the other colleges I’d considered prior to my matriculation here, none of them had the level of interdisciplinary opportunities and flexibility as the small, liberal arts school in Lexington, Virginia,” Doty said. “I’m especially grateful for the first semester of my time here, and how the university encourages students to take classes and explore avenues they would’ve otherwise never pursued — that’s how I ended up with my eclectic but fulfilling mix of majors and minors.”

Doty will spend the rest of the summer compiling his work from this project for an independent study he plans to conduct next academic year while job shadowing a pediatric geneticist at the University of Michigan and participating in a national remote research group dedicated to chemistry research. Doty is considering attending graduate school for chemistry or going to medical school to specialize in pediatric genetics. In either case, Doty is determined to make an impact and credits W&L for helping prepare him to do so.

“I grow more thankful every day to my university for believing in me to make a difference in and after college,” Doty said.

IMG_1045wp-1140x642 Roots PilgrimageRyan Doty and his mother, Lisa.

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Reflecting through poetry

Doty’s first poem of the journey was written, he said, before he even embarked, in anticipation, he said, “of the feeling of being guided by my family and faith upon arrival.”

A Start to a Start

Where do I go
When the ground beneath my feet isn’t accepting me?
How can I remember who I was 
Without forcing time to bend at will?

I will find myself in the paths of my predecessors
And bathe in the stories untold,
Futures whose gold
In memory may be lost to me
But not my soul.

You will guide my path,
And hold my hand
As the journey I have longed for commences
And the life I’ve envisioned is shaped,
Refracting into itself through the eyes of my originals.
They all look at me and provide the hands of solitude, 
The wisdom of eternity 
As I walk in the cobbled streets of origin.

I cannot wait to begin to search for my beginnings.