Duke scholar uses stories to help lift girls out of poverty

By Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — Deborah Hicks was the first person in her family to go to college.

Born in Memphis, Tenn., Hicks at age five moved to Transylvania County in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina with her mother, a homemaker, and her father, who worked at a mountaintop tracking station and then as a television repairman.

Landing a scholarship from the American Association of University Women, Hicks attended Brevard College, earning a two-year degree, then graduated from the University of Northern Arizona after her parents moved to Arizona.

She went on to receive a doctorate in education from Harvard University, where her dissertation focused on children’s storytelling.

Now, as founder and executive director of the Partnership for Appalachian Girls’ Education, or PAGE, Hicks is working to give other girls the same opportunities she had.

“We’re trying to help Appalachian people create stronger futures and lift themselves out of poverty though education,” says Hicks, who also is a research scholar at the Social Science Research Institute at Duke and, through Duke’s Bass Connections initiative, heads an interdisciplinary project on education and economic inequality in Appalachia.

PAGE, a partnership of Duke and the Madison County Public Schools, builds on a strategy known as the “girl effect,” Hicks says.

“If you invest in the education of an adolescent girl, you have a ripple effect throughout the whole community,” she says. “When she finishes high school and goes to college and builds a career, she will make sure her children are educated, and then you will have generational change, with whole families and communities finding their own pathways to college and careers.”

Now in its fifth summer, PAGE sends seven Duke undergraduates to serve as mentors for teenage girls in Madison County, including 50 middle-school students and two high-school interns who would be the first in their families to go to college. The high-school interns, who are mentored on preparing for college, in turn serve as mentors for the middle-school students.

The free summer program, consisting of two sessions of three weeks each, focuses on literacy skills, critical thinking and leadership. The girls read novels, and participate in book-group discussions led by the Duke undergrads. They take photographs and create digital stories. And they participate in traditional camp activities such as arts, crafts, canoeing, hiking and field trips.

Of the two high school interns who participated a year ago, one will enroll this fall at UNC-Chapel Hill and the other has enrolled at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in Asheville.

PAGE now plans to become a separate nonprofit with a board that can help it raise money to support its $200,000 annual operating budget. PAGE gets most of its funding from private donors, and some grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission and funds housed at the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina.

As a young woman, Hicks says, she was inspired by Christy, a young-adult novel about a young woman who goes to the mountains to teach.

“Appalachia has persistent and intergenerational areas of poverty,” she says. “So we’re focusing on investment in the education of girls.”

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