NPR Student Podcast Winner Uncovers Family Secret. Looks For Donor Dad When Anya Steinberg learned the man she thought was her father wasn't, it cast her life in a new light. In her winning student podcast entry, she traces her journey to figure out who she is.
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Attention Donor 3046: Your Daughter Made A Podcast To Find You

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Attention Donor 3046: Your Daughter Made A Podcast To Find You

Attention Donor 3046: Your Daughter Made A Podcast To Find You

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This morning, we're going to introduce you to one of the grand prize winners in NPR's Student Podcast Challenge. She's a senior at Colorado College. And in her story, she explores a family secret and how the discovery changed her whole outlook on who she is and what she wants to do with her life. NPR's Elissa Nadworny visited her on campus in Colorado Springs.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: When Anya Steinberg was a little girl, she got the first hint of this big family secret about her identity. The man she thought was her father, her mom's husband, actually wasn't. She told us she started to unravel this fact in elementary school, when she learned about genetics.

ANYA STEINBERG: My dad, who I thought was my biological dad at the time, was 50% Korean. But I'm 50% Korean. And I was like, 50 doesn't make 50 (laughter) because my mom's not Korean at all. So it just - it didn't add up. And I had questions about that.

NADWORNY: When she pressed her mom, she learned her DNA actually came from a sperm donor, a man who was 100% Korean.

STEINBERG: Pretty much all of middle school and high school, it was just like a fun fact that I'd whip out at, like, birthday parties and stuff (laughter). I'd be like, I was made in a petri dish in a lab. And then when I got to college, that was like, OK, this isn't just a party trick anymore; it's kind of sad.

NADWORNY: Because in college, identity was everything. Anya's parents divorced when she was little. Her mom, who is white, raised her and her brother.

STEINBERG: Unlike my friends, my dad never taught me Korean. Or my dad never, like, cooked food for me or, like, I never got to meet my extended family. I don't know, like, our immigration story.

NADWORNY: Perhaps her donor dad could offer answers, so she started making a podcast about it - her hunt for Sample No. 3046.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "HE'S JUST 23 CHROMOSOMES")

STEINBERG: Hi. I'm Anya. And today, I'm going to tell you the story of an immaculate conception. It didn't happen in the Bible. It happened on my mom's lunch break in a sterile room.

NADWORNY: Her mom had always told her that donor dad had been studying to be a doctor. He liked systems. He was bookish. So was Anya. She was studying to be an ecologist, applying to Ph.D. programs. But when she typed 3046 into the cryobank's search bar, turns out, she'd gotten the story wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "HE'S JUST 23 CHROMOSOMES")

STEINBERG: Reading through his files, my mind was spinning. My brain couldn't keep up with my eyes. I was like - 165 pounds, medium tan skin, born in Seoul, Korea - (sighing) plays trumpet, outgoing, dreams of directing a major motion picture. I was shook. I had this identity crisis. Like, who am I?

NADWORNY: Anya could not let this go. She told us about it when we visited her on campus, sitting on the green with the southern front range of the Rocky Mountains peeking through the clouds.

STEINBERG: I was actually doing research on that mountain up there.

NADWORNY: She'd hiked 5 miles to count trees all day, part of her environmental science major.

STEINBERG: And then I was like, I don't want to do this anymore because maybe I'm not even meant to be doing this. My dad wasn't concerned with this kind of stuff. And maybe it's OK if I'm not concerned with it either.

NADWORNY: That's what you were thinking about on those hikes?

STEINBERG: Yeah, they were - there was a lot of time to think on those hikes (laughter).

NADWORNY: Documenting what she'd learned about trumpet-playing donor dad and how she felt about those discoveries felt like a form of therapy to Anya - processing through podcasting. Anya made the podcast at her off-campus house.

STEINBERG: I live in the basement.

NADWORNY: She led us down to her room. She's got a bright orange bedspread, photos of friends pinned up on the wall. And in the corner, there's a dresser...

STEINBERG: I did it right here.

NADWORNY: ...The spot where she recorded. She'd plop her laptop and microphone on top.

STEINBERG: And then I'd go like this...

NADWORNY: She pulls a towel over her head to dampen the echo...

STEINBERG: ...And get underneath my towel.

NADWORNY: ...Making a mini studio.

STEINBERG: And then I'd be like, dang it. Then I'd be like, hi, hi, hi. (Laughter).

NADWORNY: Growing up, Anya says her family never really talked about race.

STEINBERG: There weren't a lot of times, for better or for worse, that we talked about our identities or a lot of what it means to be Korean kids.

NADWORNY: The podcast gave Anya an excuse to pry, to ask her mom and her brother what all this meant.

STEINBERG: It gave me permission to ask them things that I'd never asked before - how were you feeling? Like, what did you think about that? What did Dad say? What did my brother say? - like, all of these different things that I'd never really gotten the courage to ask about.

NADWORNY: Anya's mom, Kristin Wintermute, who's featured heavily in Anya's podcast, I was curious what she thought of all this out in the open, so we called her.

STEINBERG: Hey, Mom.

KRISTIN WINTERMUTE: Hi. How are you?

STEINBERG: Good. How are you?

WINTERMUTE: I'm just bragging about you on Facebook.

NADWORNY: Kristin could talk about her daughter Anya all day.

WINTERMUTE: She's been a storyteller for a very, very, very long time.

NADWORNY: When Anya was little, she'd carry around a notebook with scribbled stories. A favorite - a magic garden with flowers that transported you around the world.

What was your reaction when she first called you to say that this was going to be the topic of the latest story?

WINTERMUTE: I was surprised that that's the story she wanted to tell. I didn't know she was laying in her room, staring at the ceiling, wondering what this guy was like...

(LAUGHTER)

WINTERMUTE: ...Because it was just kind of how I had children. And I didn't know that it had such an impact on her.

NADWORNY: For Anya, the impact was major. Finding out about donor dad consumed her. It still does - because she's never met him or talked to him and she wants to. To do that, she'll need to go through the cryobank her mom used. Here's how she ended her podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "HE'S JUST 23 CHROMOSOMES")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you for calling California Cryobank, a Generate Life Sciences company. If you're a new or existing donor sperm client, press one.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOUCH TONE)

STEINBERG: Thanks for listening. This podcast...

NADWORNY: So the ending was quite a cliffhanger.

STEINBERG: (Laughter) Yeah, yeah.

NADWORNY: Is there any more to the story?

STEINBERG: Yeah. Well, I have a confession (laughter). When I pressed the button, like, I didn't actually go through with it because I was too scared. So I just recorded it and then hung up immediately. So then when I found out I won, I was like, oh, my God, I have to actually call them (laughter).

NADWORNY: It turns out, it's a whole process, lots of paperwork and documentation, which Anya and her mom have started. Ultimately, it will be up to donor dad to make contact. Anya, she's bracing for a no, but hoping for a yes.

STEINBERG: If Donor 3046 is listening to this, you should email me (laughter).

NADWORNY: In Colorado Springs, I'm Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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