A Duke University scholar returns to her home region of Western North Carolina to create a digital production program to help girls succeed in high school and beyond. “I wanted to found an organization that would support girls like me,” says Deborah Hicks, creator of Appalachian Girls’ Education (PAGE).
Deborah Hicks grew up in Rosman, North Carolina (pop. 576), as a self-professed “small town, mountain, working-class girl.”
Despite her eventual academic achievements, Hicks struggled throughout college.
“I didn’t even know how to apply,” she says.
She persevered and after graduating from high school went to college. She earned a doctorate degree from Harvard, taught at the university level, published three books, and is now a research scholar at Duke University, where she runs the Partnership for Appalachian Girls’ Education (PAGE) initiative.
In 2010, Hicks was teaching in Cincinnati when she decided to move back to her home state of North Carolina and form the PAGE program to give Appalachian girls the tools she didn’t have when she began her college career.
“I wanted to found an organization that would support girls like me,” Hicks says. “Girls who are growing up in this specific kind of rural poverty but don’t have opportunities for educational enrichment, for summer programs, for year-round opportunities that would help them succeed and go on to college.”
The PAGE initiative is a four-year program for girls in rural Madison County, North Carolina, just north of Asheville along the border with Tennessee. Each summer, 50 girls enter PAGE the summer before sixth grade and continue through middle school. The goal is to prepare the girls for success in high school and help them get ready to apply to and attend college.
The intensive six-week summer programs focus on digital education. The girls learn advanced skills by creating digital storytelling pieces about their lives. Using storytelling helps make the program fun, but Hicks says it’s also tied to the girls’ roots, as storytelling is an important part of Appalachian culture.
“We early on figured out that a fine way of teaching these skills was to combine 21st century technology with the Appalachian art of storytelling, and it’s the best of both worlds,” Hicks says. “It makes digital learning really fun for the PAGE girls.”
The focus on digital literacy enables the girls to pursue careers beyond lower-skilled and lower-paying jobs in the service industry. In Madison Country, many families depended on tobacco farming as their main source of income, and as these types of farms decline, future generations are left without training for other work.
“We’re trying to prepare Appalachian girls for secure, higher-paying jobs like jobs in tech industry, or other jobs that would require digital skills,” Hicks says. Rural girls are often locked out of these kinds of jobs for lack of exposure, education, and access to broadband internet.
The question remains whether these girls will be able to find work in their home communities or whether they’ll have to leave to find work elsewhere. It’s a question Hicks has been struggling with since the program’s inception. The PAGE program is working with organizations that can help bring jobs into Madison County. One such group focuses on rural “insourcing” — creating information technology jobs in rural communities.
“We’re still maintaining our mission of education,” Hicks says, “but we’re starting to also look ahead to what lies beyond for our students at the end of that pipeline to create opportunities that would help the girls long, long, long term.”
Why just girls? PAGE’s focus on Appalachian girls comes from a body of research that refers to the “girl effect,” an idea that investing in adolescent girls creates a ripple effect throughout the community. According to girleffect.org, “An educated girl will reinvest 90 per cent of her future income in her family, compared with 35 per cent for a boy. And yet 250 million adolescent girls live in poverty and are more likely than boys to be uneducated.”
After their first summer, the girls stay in the program over four years, developing their increasing digital skills, in addition to participating in reading groups, fostering leadership, exploring career paths and, Hicks is quick to point out, having fun.
The first 50 girls who entered PAGE in 2012 finished their sophomore year of high school this spring. Now is the time that many of them are starting to think about college. Hicks believes that if she’d had access to a program like PAGE growing up, she wouldn’t have struggled so much in her early years away at school.
“It would have given me so many more tools to enter college, and be ready for it, and be successful immediately,” she says.
Ultimately the program’s goal is not so much about creating future tech leaders or storytellers, but supporting girls so that they can achieve their dreams. “It might not be the same dream that I had when I was growing up,” says Hicks, “but each girl has dreams for what she wants to be and what she wants to accomplish. Our goal is to prepare them for whatever that might be.”