DURHAM, N.C. - Among the many traditions that come with being a part of a varsity athletic program, a group of Duke rowers are hoping to establish a new one -- one that impacts the lives of people outside the Duke community.
The Spring Creek Literacy Project -- a DukeEngage summer program started by former Blue Devil Nancy McKinstry and a couple of other Duke students in 2010 -- is now in its third year of serving middle school-aged girls in Madison County, North Carolina. Each summer, students travel to the economically-challenged region in the Blue Ridge Mountains to promote literacy and educational opportunity among young women.
According to a documentary produced by DukeEngage about the Spring Creek Literacy Project, North Carolina ranks 35th out of the 50 states in high school graduation rates. In areas like Madison County, where the decline in tobacco farming has left a particularly dramatic economic toll, the high school dropout rate is even more pronounced. Some students must travel as far as two hours to attend the nearest school, and there are few resources available for those who do graduate and wish to seek higher education.
"It takes a lot of dedication for these kids to just get to school every day," says Allison Beattie, a junior rower who worked with the DukeEngage program this summer. "The whole idea is that starting in middle school, if girls become really devoted to learning and education, that will carry over to high school and they'll be more committed to graduating from high school, seeking higher education and then hopefully bringing that experience back to Madison County to strengthen the culture that is already there."
One of the primary aims of the summer program is to bring all the girls up to speed in terms of their reading level. However, there are also other elements that cater to strengthening the participants' physical and mental well-being. Sarah Baker, a senior on the team who travelled to the region with DukeEngage last summer, says building self-esteem among the girls is a key component in promoting education.
"We do a lot to try to build them up since it is program for girls," Baker said. "We try to make them understand their own self-worth."
Another way in which the Duke students running the program facilitate a love of learning is through a series of storytelling projects. Girls in the program are encouraged to use a variety of mediums to record the histories of their families, including photographs which are then compiled into short movie presentations. The experience enables them to gain exposure to new digital technology and also bridge the gap with older generations.
"It was a really great experience for us also because we were able to facilitate them telling their own story and feeling like they had something to say that mattered to someone outside of them," Beattie said.
While initial participation in the Spring Creek Literacy Project was low, the program has gained support and numbers in each year of its existence. Both Baker and Beattie say the students involved have been able to successfully overcome the "Duke stigma" attached to their presence in the region, and that the parents of the girls they work with have been appreciative of their efforts. In turn, both rowers say that they too gained valuable insights through their DukeEngage experiences.
"I became a lot more open during the summer towards meeting new people," Beattie said. "I learned that when you really open yourself up to people around you and give up yourself to the girls, it really caused them to open up to us. We were able to have an amazing relationship."
Both Beattie and Baker also say they plan to promote the Spring Creek Literacy Project among their teammates, in the hope that another Duke rower will be interested in continuing the tradition of involvement again next summer.
"It's so amazing that you can travel only four hours away from campus and find such a different culture and amazing people who are willing to accept you into their community," Baker says. "There's so much work to be done domestically and even here in North Carolina."
DukeEngage's documentary on the Spring Creek Literacy Project is available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eESztZOrUlo.