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Helping Others Discover Their Roots: Alum of the Month Rich Venezia

Meet Rich Venezia (IES Abroad Dublin, Fall 2010) Founder and Principal Genealogist at Rich Roots Genealogy, and our August Alum of the Month.

Even before he went to college, Rich knew he wanted to study theatre on our Dublin Direct Enrollment – National Theatre School of Ireland-Gaiety School of Acting Program. When he wasn’t immersing himself in theatre, Rich traveled through Italy and Ireland to retrace the footsteps of his ancestors.

After pursuing careers in acting and PR, Rich took his passion for genealogy full-time and founded Rich Roots Genealogy. Now, he helps others discover their roots, and has also worked on genealogy TV shows on PBS and the Travel Channel.

In our interview, discover how theatre and study abroad helped Rich succeed as a professional genealogist and entrepreneur.

IES Abroad: What led you to study abroad in Dublin?

Rich Venezia (RV): My first trip abroad was to Ireland in 2006, and I absolutely fell in love with the Emerald Isle. I knew from that trip that I wanted to study abroad in Ireland. I was lucky enough to find the IES Abroad study abroad catalog in a friend’s house the summer before I started college. Not only were there courses in Dublin, but there was also a theatre program! Because I was about to start as a theatre major, it was the perfect fit. So – you could say I knew I was going to study abroad in Dublin through IES Abroad before I even began college!

IES Abroad: What are some of your most memorable study abroad experiences? 

RV: I appreciated the varied opportunities studying abroad with IES Abroad provided. We started the semester in a month-long theatre seminar, with the Dublin Fringe Festival and Dublin Theatre Festival as our classroom. Once our program with the Gaiety School of Acting started, we worked hard, from morning till night, with classes in acting, theatre history, tap dance, and everything in-between. It was the perfect complement to my Conservatory training back home in Pittsburgh. Additionally, there were numerous weekend trips – both organized by IES Abroad and some I took solo. I added four more European countries to my “dance card” during my study abroad experience – including my first trip retracing my ancestors’ footsteps in southern Italy and a visit to the village of my Irish 2x-great-grandfather in County Kilkenny.

IES Abroad: How did you get interested in genealogy, and what inspired you to found Rich Roots Genealogy?

RV: I started researching my own family history as a teenager thanks to my maternal grandmother. When she passed away, I found the family tree she’d been working on, and decided to take up the mantel in her memory. I researched on and off until my early 20s, when my interests became more serious/professional. After several years of working as an actor, as a study abroad program coordinator, and in PR and Marketing (back in Dublin, in fact!), I decided to go out on my own and see what being my own boss would be like…that was just more than 3 years ago!

IES Abroad: As a professional genealogist, how do you help clients find their ‘roots’ and where has your work taken you?

RV: Each project is different, depending on the client’s goals and family. Research generally starts with what the client knows, and I work backwards from there. Genealogists work from the known to the unknown, as opposed to vice versa. A research starts online, and is quickly supplemented with on-site research in various archives, or ordering away for various documents to enrich the research and/or solve a specific question.

I research abroad annually in both Ireland and Italy, and also travel throughout the United States as a genealogical lecturer. I research frequently in Washington, D.C., New Jersey, and New York City, as well. Some of the most exciting places I’ve ever been have been my own ancestral hometowns in southern Italy. My ancestors moved a lot before they immigrated to the United States, so I still have many places yet to go!

IES Abroad: In addition to your research for private clients, you were a researcher on the PBS show Genealogy Roadshow, and also worked as a consultant on the Travel Channel’s Follow Your Past. What have these experiences been like? How did you get started in television?

RV: Working on genealogy television shows has been a really thrilling experience! It’s a wonderful opportunity for the sector, to motivate the public’s interest in genealogy, so I feel very privileged to have played a part. Television is very fast-paced (as I knew well from my days as an actor), and genealogy is very methodical and calm…so let’s just say it’s an added challenge to do genealogy for television!

Working on those research teams has made me a better, more efficient researcher. There can be no mistakes in TV, so it really honed my eyes to spot inconsistencies quickly, to better formulate working theories, and it broadened my horizons to various records sets and genres I may have never researched on my own. I was asked to work on Roadshow shortly after starting as a full-time genealogist, and there could have been no better crash course.

Another factor that can’t be denied was how my study abroad facilitated engagement with diverse people and cultures, both in our IES Abroad community of students and faculty and in the different countries where we lived and traveled. Vienna sits at the crossroads between east and west, and is a microcosm of diverse cultural engagement. To a great extent, my work in the theatre addresses this issue and the identity of people from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. It confronts how we perceive and react to “otherness” and the inherent value and dignity of all people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or spiritual views.

IES Abroad: What is one of the most interesting research projects you’ve worked on to date? 

RV: A lot of my stories for Genealogy Roadshow were quite interesting – and as is often the case with TV, only a fraction make it to the silver screen! I worked on several of the main stories in Seasons 2 and 3. One of the stories I worked on for Season 2 in St. Louis is actually being turned into a book as the guest, Gail Lukasik (pictured at right), is an author. We were able to confirm her suspicion that her mother was from an African-American family, but passed her whole life as a white woman because she was so light-skinned. It was just as fascinating for her as it was for us. 

Additionally, her grandfather had a second family that was unknown to her. She now has a whole new side to her family – aunts, uncles, and cousins – that she never knew existed! I am looking forward to her book, White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing, which will be published this fall. Every family I work on is fascinating to me, but it’s quite rare to reassign a family’s ethnic/racial origins.

IES Abroad: Are there any skills you developed studying abroad that you continue to draw upon today as an entrepreneur?

RV: I often draw upon my skills learned in theatre school as a genealogist. In research, I am constantly thinking on my feet, working collaboratively, and memorizing (dates and names, not lines)! When I lecture, improvisation is necessary when things go wrong, and my days treading the boards certainly serve my public speaking and projection abilities. Studying abroad helped me learn to think critically, which I do on a daily basis in my research. It also fostered my wanderlust, so I am very fortunate that my research and lecturing takes me all over.

IES Abroad: What advice would you give to current students who are thinking of studying or interning abroad?

RV: Do it – without hesitation! I can’t recommend it more highly. My study abroad experience was one of the best times of my life. I learned a lot, laughed a ton, and grew more than I ever thought I could.

My time studying abroad in Dublin brought me back there to live for a year after graduation, and that time really helped cement my independence and wherewithal to be an entrepreneur. The world is a huge place, and it is so worth exploring. Travel, in my humble opinion, is the best education. Learning more about the world around us and experiencing other cultures brings us all closer together. A study or intern abroad experience is the perfect way to start that journey. Go n-éirí an bóthar leat!

How will study abroad prepare you for your career? We can’t wait to find out. Find the best place to study abroad for you based on your interests, hobbies, major, and more.