top of page
  • Writer's pictureKristin Wenger

Confessions of a GRIP Newbie


Rewind to December 2017. I had just completed Boston University’s certificate program. Because I have three kids at home, BU’s 100% online course was a perfect fit for me. After improving my research and writing skills by leaps and bounds, I wanted to make continuing education a priority. Webinars and lots of reading kept me current; however, I desired an experience with greater depth and some in-person camaraderie with fellow genealogists. After evaluating the four major national institutes, I set my sights on a week in July at the Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh (GRIP). A combination of relative proximity to my home (an easy four-hour drive on the PA turnpike) and the excellent course offerings made GRIP a natural choice for my first institute experience.

Having previously taught in local schools, this trip was the first time I have traveled overnight for career purposes. It was a significant change for our family, but with our kids reaching the age to have some camp adventures of their own, the timing was ideal.

This week may have been the first time ever that this mama appreciated Snapchat!

My husband must have been on "ghost mode" at the time.

In hindsight, I am can attest that the GRIP experience was absolutely worth it and lived up to its claim of "in-depth, hands-on courses in a friendly atmosphere."

For anyone considering an institute experience, here are my impressions as a first-timer.

Registration and Communication:

The registration process was smooth and easy. Honestly, the most difficult part was selecting just one course from the many excellent offerings.

Prior to the February registration date, I joined the Facebook group and perused the GRIP website to learn many helpful tips. There was even a step-by-step tutorial walking through the registration screens and the ability to complete a profile beforehand, ensuring a quick registration into the class of my choice.

I was impressed by the timely and detailed communication both prior to and during the week of GRIP. Co-directors Elissa Scalise Powell and Deborah Lichtner Deal do a fantastic job providing all of the information you will need to make the most of your experience.


I snapped this photo on my way to class at GRIP, hosted at La Roche College.

A key difference between GRIP and the other institutes is that it is held on a college campus rather than at a hotel with conference rooms. I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to return to college life; however, I found that this arrangement kept costs affordable and was extremely convenient. The dorm, classrooms, and dining at hall at La Roche are all just steps away from each other.

Co-directors Debbie and Elissa welcome attendees in the College Center, 22 July 2018.

Our home for the week, Bold Hall

The interior of my dorm room

I was thankful that each dorm room had a private bath (not the community showers I remember from my college days!)


The dining hall food was better than I expected. I packed some snacks to keep in my room during the week, and I did not even open them. Between the entrees and the always-available salad bar, fresh fruit, and pizza, I found something suitable at every meal. I don’t have food allergies, but I noticed a gluten-free zone and other accommodations. Ice cream, cookies, and other dessert options satisfied my sweet tooth.

My dinner one evening - not too shabby!

Plenty of choices at lunch!

GRIP also provided an afternoon snack break between classes, and I frequently munched on some trail mix while browsing the history and genealogy pop-up bookstore supplied by Maia’s Books.


To be completely honest, it was a little bit out of my comfort zone to attend an event at which I knew absolutely no one. However, all I had to do at meals was ask, “May I join you?” and soon I was deep in conversation with new friends from all over the country. GRIP was an outstanding opportunity to meet others who share the same passionate interest in family history. I found that even the instructors, who are some of the absolute best in the field, are down-to-earth and willing to chat. One night at dinner, a fellow BU alum and I were joined by co-director Elissa, who let us pick her brain about everything from lecturing to becoming certified by BCG.

Some of the fine instructors who shared their wisdom with us

Photo contributed to GRIP's Facebook group by Peggy Clemens Lauritzen, 22 July 2018


The cover of my course binder for the week

As I mentioned earlier, I wish I could have taken several of the courses. I finally settled on “Women and Children, First!: Research Methods for the Hidden Half of the Family” for two reasons. First, family historians tend to get stuck or not be able to learn as much about women and children because the laws of the past were not set up to create records for them. Second, I wanted to learn from one of the most respected voices in the field, Judy Russell (aka the Legal Genealogist). Lacking a background in law, I hoped to get a crash course in historical law and how it applies to the records our family members may have left. The overarching theme Judy impressed upon us was that genealogists must know the law in the time and place of research. Why? We have to understand what records may have been created so that we can find them and tell the stories.

The topics and types of records we covered included:

  • Marriage and divorce

  • Pensions

  • School

  • Court records

  • Differences between civil law and common law

  • Criminal justice

  • Guardianship

  • Citizenship

  • Probate

  • Feme sole traders

  • Women and children in the workplace

  • Newspapers

  • Poor relief, mother’s pensions, and welfare

  • Apprenticeships, indentures, and binding out

  • Orphans and orphanages

  • Manuscripts (handwritten documents)

  • DNA as a research tool

Each evening, our homework assignment was to apply the information and strategies we discussed that day to a personal research project. I made several discoveries that are absolute treasures and look forward to sharing them in some of my upcoming blogs. More importantly, I feel I gained a much better understanding of the law and will be able to better assist others with a wide variety of record groups.

Evening lectures:

As an added bonus, free lectures were offered on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday evenings. These lectures were open to the community and were well-attended by members of local genealogical societies. I pulled myself away from my homework long enough to take in all three outstanding lectures:

  • Michael Lacopo – “The German Immigrant Experience in the 18th Century”

  • Marian Smith of the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service – “Fact, Fiction, and Immigrant Passenger Lists”

  • Thomas W. Jones – “Writing for Genealogy Publications: An NGSQ Primer"

Learning from the master, Tom Jones

Please excuse the poor quality, but the photo was taken from quite a distance.

The final verdict:

GRIP exceeded my expectations. Thank you to the directors, course instructors, lecturers, my classmates, and everyone else who contributed to an excellent learning experience. I have been inspired and encouraged to apply my new knowledge to discover, preserve, and share the stories of our families, and especially the women and children who are so often forgotten by history. My wheels have been turning about my next step: ProGen? SLIG? Certification? There are many possibilities, but I know one thing for sure.

I'll be back.


Kristin Wenger is a professional genealogist and educator based in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. She is passionate about giving others the gift of experiencing fulfillment and inspiration through discovering, preserving, and sharing their family histories.

You can read her stories on her blog and find more information on her website.

1 Comment

Aug 02, 2018

Sounds like a great experience! Looking forward to hearing about the things you discovered!

bottom of page