Walking in Grandma’s Path at Ellis Island

Mar 26, 2024

You never know what connections across time and culture will be forged through student travel.

Late 2022, the South Dakota State University’s Pride of the Dakota’s Marching Band went to New York City with the help of Bob Rogers Travel. There, one student came face-to-face her own history, and it all started with travel consultant Tom Merrill and his own trip to New York years ago.

“I’d never been to New York until I got into the student travel business in 2000,” Merrill said. “I think the first year I was there, we took a company trip to New York City, which I was thrilled about. We took time and went over to Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. When I got there, I found out that they have a room where you can go and look up the ship manifests.”

Merrill’s family heritage has always been very important to him. His grandfather went through Ellis Island in 1908 at seven years old, coming over from Denmark. Merrill was able to find his grandfather and entire family in the registry, heading on the train to Viborg, South Dakota, where the older brother had already settled a farm.

It was an amazing feeling, getting to see his own family’s story in the official records. Merrill says he got “the most expensive photocopies I’ve ever paid for,” sending them to his mom, who still has them on display.

Fast forward from 2000 to 2022, when Merrill is doing a presentation to try and win business for South Dakota State University’s trip to perform in the Macy’s Day Parade. This was an especially exciting opportunity, as Merrill is an alum of SDSU and was in the band for five years as a music ed student before becoming a band director and eventually joining Bob Rogers.

When he got to Ellis Island in his presentation, he recounted his story, mentioning how South Dakota is full of families who came over from Europe, with the hope that some student on this trip might be able to find a similar connection.

Bob Rogers did end up getting the trip, and everything went wonderfully. However, it wasn’t until late 2023 that Merrill heard what happened.

“A fundraising postcard from the SDSU Foundation shows up in my mailbox with a story of this girl, Mckenzie, who as a freshman in the marching band. When we were over at Ellis Island, she knew her grandmother had come over on the boat, but much later, like in the late 40s, that last wave of immigrants that actually went through. So, she went and looked and, low and behold, found her.”

What’s truly special about this experience is that Mckenzie’s grandmother is still alive.

“One of the Ellis Island docents told her, ‘Well, let me show you where she would have come in,’ and walks over to the stairs. Mckenzie gets on her cell phone and calls her grandmother and says to her, ‘I’m standing where you stood. I’m walking in your path.’”

Cue the tears for everyone involved in this trip. Merrill’s own story led to someone else making the same connection, just as he’d hoped, but he didn’t even find out it happened until a year later. After reading the story, Merrill’s wife gave him a reminder.

“She looks at me with that look a spouse gives you when they’re about to hit you between the eyes with something. She says, ‘Would you please, when you have your bad days, please remember that this is why you do this, and these are the experiences that you are working to create for people.’”

Ultimately, Merrill feels it speaks to what travel planners and educators all do when making student travel happen.

“We’re hoping that somewhere along the line, there’s a moment of magic that is happening for one of our travelers, that’s going to make that experience extra special and maybe even change their lives.”

This story originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of Teach & Travel.

Photo Courtesy of Tom Merrill.