Finding family in expected places

Kate Erikson

Suitemates learn they are fourth cousins after living together for eight months

Sophomores McKinley Friesen and Emma Engel became friends their freshman year after meeting as randomized suitemates in Arnett Hall.

It was not until almost eight months after their first meeting that Friesen and Engel would learn that they were fourth cousins.

Engel and Friesen believe that they weren’t supposed to meet, as they are from completely different parts of the country. Friesen is from Kaiser, Oregon and Engel is from Gillette, Wyoming.

Engel’s father is from California and she has some cousins from the state that she rarely sees. Her family doesn’t have regular family reunions and being that her mother is the first of her family to come to America from Italy, most of the maternal side of her family isn’t in the U.S. Friesen, on the other hand, is close with her extended family, but she was not close with any family past her first cousins.

Between the two of them, Engel and Friesen only knew two people attending SPU; Friesen went to high school with her roommate and, later in the school year, Engel found out a girl from her high school went to SPU as well. They both wanted to make friends, so Engel introduced herself to Friesen.

Engel was already moved in because she was working on campus, as Friesen was moving in she walked into her room and with little introduction handed her a book.

“I remember you said you liked to read,” Engel said to Friesen. “You should read this if you have time.”

Little did Engel know, offering Friesen this book was not only the start of their friendship, but an unlikely discovery about their genealogy.

Friesen’s last name seemed familiar to Engel, which was odd to her. According to the 2000 U.S. census, only 0.00226 percent of people in the U.S. have the last name Friesen.

Engel asked if Friesen was German. Engel is partially German Mennonite and it turned out that Friesen was as well. Engel mentioned that there are not a lot of German Mennonite people and the two joked that they might be related.

When Engel went home during Christmas break she found out why Friesen sounded so familiar. As she was looking through her family books she saw the name. The two passed it off as just another funny coincidence.

As the year progressed, the two became closer. Friesen brought Engel to Oregon for Memorial Day weekend in May. Engel was looking through a recipe book at Friesen’s house and saw the last name Kroeker, which was strange because Kroeker was a name in her family as well.

When they realized that both of them had great-grandparents with the last name Kroeker, the situation no longer felt like a coincidence.

The friends talked to their grandparents to see if they knew anything about what they had found. Engel’s grandma was the one who finally found the answers they were looking for when she used an internet service similar to that gave Engel and Friesen insight on their shared history.

In May of 2018, they found their common ancestor: Franz Kroeker. They also found a photo of their great grandparents sitting next to one another at a family event.

Friesen and Engel had been sharing a bathroom with their fourth cousin for almost an entire school year and didn’t even know it.

Was it fate bringing the two together again?

Friesen and Engel don’t think so. But it did make them think about family differently. The two are closer to each other than they are with family whom they have more genetic commonality with.

For Engel and Freisen, it was refreshing to learn that they had similar genes with someone they enjoy and feel like they can confide in.

“To me, family is not only defined by blood, the people you choose as friends can become family as well,” Engel said.

“Even if McKinley wasn’t blood-related to me, I would still consider her as my family.”