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How to Find Yourself

March 11, 2011

“We had been looking for her forever,” says Dorothy Walsh King of her long-lost niece, BMCC student Ruth Allen.

Dorothy and her siblings had lost contact with Ruth when she was a child, and living with their sister, Christine Jordan—who struggled with substance abuse, left 10-year-old Ruth with a friend to raise, and eventually succumbed to a drug overdose.

A life-changing class project

Fast-forward almost 25 years, and Ruth Allen is a Liberal Arts major at BMCC, completing a project in her Critical Thinking class led by Professor David Seiple.

“The assignment was to use problem solving and logical thinking to create a critical self history,” says Seiple, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from Columbia, and guides students through complex discussions such as comparing "real" and "apparent" dilemmas.

“First, the students identify a tension in their lives," he says, "especially one that involves a contradiction in feelings—then they logically work out points of the dilemma, choose the best solution, and resolve it.”

Ruth Allen identified mixed feelings about finding her mother’s family, as the problem she hoped her project would solve.

“I didn’t want to be rejected,” she said. “I’d gotten a very distorted version of how they felt about me. But the project was so task-oriented, it helped me deal with that emotional part. It helped me process ideas from a different perspective, to deal with what we called in class, the inner ‘Voice of Criticism’ that was telling me, ‘They don’t want you’.”

‘This is my face’

As it turns out, the family did want her. Ruth’s aunts and uncles, led by her mother’s sister Dorothy, had long been searching online for their missing niece, not realizing that she’d been using a married name, “Allen.”

For years, in fact, Ruth’s aunt Dorothy, as well as her aunt, Carol Lynn Walsh, and her uncles, Richard Walsh and Ronald Walsh, had passed around the only photo they had of Ruth, taken during a rare family visit when Christine had briefly recovered from her addiction, and Ruth was seven.

“Find my niece,” Richard was famous for commanding Dorothy, as she followed up search leads at her computer—none of the siblings aware that just a few miles away, Ruth was completing an “Action Step” for her BMCC class project—placing an ad on www.ancestry.com.

“It read, ‘Desperately Seeking Family Members of Christine Jordan’, then I listed all their names,” says Ruth—and the results were almost immediate.

“My phone vibrated. I popped it open and there was this message: ‘I’m Christine’s sister. Contact me at’, with her phone number.”

Ruth responded right away. “I wanted to fill in the gaps. I didn’t even know what my heritage was. Dorothy sent a picture of my mom and I stared and stared. I didn’t realize I favored her so much. I said, ‘This is my face’.”

Making a better life

Growing up, Ruth Allen could have used the support of her big, extended family. “I dropped out of school,” she says. “When my mother died, my stepmother basically went off the deep end. I was kind of pushed out of the house, and went to stay with friends. I was struggling to survive.”

During that uncertain time, she met her first husband. “I was 16 and he was 29,” she says. “I was homeless, and I wasn’t very street smart.” From that marriage, Ruth now has a daughter, age 22, as well as a 16-year-old daughter from a subsequent marriage. Determined to give them a stable environment, she found work and pursued her education.

“I got a job in an animal shelter,” she says, “and worked my way up to being a senior manager for the ASPCA, overseeing the direct care staff, supervising about 33 people, and being responsible for over 400 animals.”

She also attended an adult education program in Brooklyn, earned her GED in 2007, and entered BMCC as a Liberal Arts major in 2009—maintaining, today, a 3.8 GPA.

New skills

After graduating from BMCC, Ruth plans to major in Human Resource Management at Baruch College.  

“I’m also thinking about communications. I really like my speech class, and public speaking. Most of all, I’d like to give something back.”

One thing she wants to give back, is the ability to solve problems with logic and reflection. Professor Seiple’s Critical Thinking class didn’t just give her the tools to find her family; it instilled rigorous habits for academic success—and addressing life’s problems.

“I keep a schedule book now," Ruth says."I write down things I’m stressed about, and what I’m going to do about them, how I’m going to meet certain goals.”

In Seiple’s class, she says, “We put together a binder, with the flow charts and other things we used for our projects. Now, for example, in my sociology class, when I’m stuck, I use those resources to process ideas from a different perspective.”

Applying those strategies beyond his class makes sense to Professor Seiple. “I’m trained in philosophy and I think philosophy should be practical," he says, "or else why are we teaching it?”

Memories

Reunited with her family, Ruth has spent hours pouring over sepia photos of her ancestors, Irish- and German-descended New Yorkers like her great-grandfather, John Wellsing, who played in the farm league for the New York Yankees in the 1920s.  

According to her newfound Aunt Carol, “Ruth looks just like her grandmother, and they share things that neither knew about—they both read the dictionary for fun, their favorite drink is Bailey’s Irish Crème, and their favorite flower is daisies.”

Ruth’s Uncle Richard manages The Blind Pig, a spacious pub on 14th Street in the East Village where the family gathered recently, sharing memories of Christine Jordan, and giving Ruth perspective on the mother she lost.

“She took me to see A Hard Day’s Night, in the Bronx,” Richard says. “I was like four years old.” Dorothy adds, “She used to make us French toast,” and Carol Lynn recalls, “She showed me my first 45 record—the Everly Brothers. I can still see her little portable player.”

“Without that class at BMCC, the Critical Thinking class,” says Ruth, “I never would have taken the steps to find my family. It helped me to go outside myself, and be objective. It helped me address different questions, and find answers I needed.”

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STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • In David Seiple’s Critical Thinking class, students map the steps to solve a dilemma in their lives
  • Ruth Allen’s class project was to find the family she’d been separated from, since childhood
  • The family, it turns out, had been looking for her all along

share this story »