By CHRIS COOK
Duke Sports Information
The DukeEngage program offers Duke students a chance to travel the world and immerse themselves in the cultures of otherwise unreachable regions, all the while empowering those students to address critical human needs through service and the use of talents that they may or may not know they possess. The program, offered at virtually no cost to its student participants, boasts international destinations such as China, India, Ireland and Egypt, as well as domestic spots such as Miami, New Orleans and Washington, D.C.
So when Duke sophomore rower Mary Wilson decided to sign up for the program along with a handful of her teammates last summer, it may have seemed a bit of a letdown to some that her destination did not require a passport. More so, it did not require crossing into a different time zone or even across state lines.
For Wilson, a trip to Hot Springs, N.C., a town of just over 2,000 located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, at first seemed not to be the best use of her DukeEngage-sponsored summer. With her teammates traveling to Uganda and the Dominican Republic, Portland, Ore., and New York, N.Y., a short drive to the western part of the state where she has spent her previous two years of college paled in comparison.
For Wilson, however, DukeEngage was not so much about the destination as it was the mission.
In Madison, which is less than 300 miles from Durham and just a two-and-a-half hour drive from her hometown of Laurens, S.C., Wilson teamed up with DukeEngage program director Deborah Hicks and the PAGE program, which stands for Partnership for Appalachian Girls' Education. The program aims to provide middle school-aged girls in the rural area with a summer enrichment program focusing on a 21st century education, including computer skills and literacy. The program is cost-free for families, as PAGE provides breakfast and lunch as well as round-trip transportation.
What appealed to Wilson so much that she was willing to skip out on a trip to a more exotic location was the PAGE program’s focus on empowerment through education, which Hicks details in her book, The Road Out.
“I saw that and I loved it because I’m really interested in education and empowerment and what that means and how education can transform people’s lives,” said Wilson, who first heard of PAGE from a poster on campus. “I saw that last year and knew I had to do it. I didn’t even know it was connected to DukeEngage.”
Wilson was unaware that several of her Duke rowing teammates had also participated in the program in years past. In fact, Wilson’s participation this past summer marked the fourth straight year that a Duke rower was a part of the Appalachian-based PAGE program, extending a legacy that also included Nancy McKinstry (‘12), Sarah Baker (’13) and senior teammate Allison Beattie. Talking with her teammates about their experiences sealed the deal.
“Talking with [my teammates] definitely helped,” she said. “Madison County is very isolated. The nearest Walmart is 30-45 minutes away, and the town doesn’t have a stoplight. I only knew these Duke students, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m here for nine weeks.’ But then I remembered that Sarah’s done it, Allison’s done it, so I got this.”
It proved to be a unique opportunity, especially working with middle school students, Wilson said, because of the unique array of personalities and levels of social development among girls in that age range.
“The girls were amazing,” she said. “I just loved working with them. [The Duke students and I] would go home at night, and we didn’t really have much else to do so we would just talk about how much we loved the girls. They were just really fun to work with.
“Middle school is such a wild card age because you’ve got some girls who are 10 years old, running around, just excited and playing games and they don’t want to stop, and then you’ve got other girls who, some of which have been through an awful lot, more than I have, really, and they’re dealing with a lot of family issues. Some have boyfriends at this age, so it’s a really varied spectrum, and it made it really exciting.”
In order to make the experience as fun as possible for the girls, Wilson and her fellow Duke students engaged them in entertaining activities focused on team-building and leadership but disguised as learning. For Wilson, some of her most rewarding moments came during the hour each day when she got to teach the girls to play basketball.
“I didn’t have to worry about anything like conditioning or winning, so it was just the pure, ‘Let’s just play a sport and learn how to communicate with teammates and pass the ball around,’ and that was just really fun,” she said. “A lot of these girls have had sports shut out of their lives, like it wasn’t really an option for a lot of them ... So just for them to be able to have this bit of activity, that time to just play sports, they really got a lot out of it.”
In line with the PAGE program’s mission, Wilson turned the game into a teaching opportunity, using an outlet that few of the participants had experience with to encourage them to work together as a team. One moment in particular summed up her experience in Madison perfectly.
“One afternoon we were playing basketball, and I told them, ‘I really don’t even care if you guys make the shots. That’s not important to me. I want you to pass with each other, work as a team and take as many shots as you want. I don’t really care if it goes in.’ So we had a lot of that, and their style of play – it was a 20-minute scrimmage – and I couldn’t believe how good they became in just that 20 minutes.
“During the last bit, it was really time to go, but this one girl took one last shot, and it was so perfect, and it went in. And she was just elated because this was a girl who really hadn’t gotten a lot of exposure to sports, and she was so, so, so excited. She was normally a calm, quiet girl, but it just made her day. It made my day, too. It made my week.”
So while her teammates, friends and fellow DukeEngage participants were off carrying out their own missions in more well-known locations, Wilson’s time in the quaint, mountainous, stoplight-free town of Madison left her impacted just the same. She is now contemplating crafting her own area of study though Duke Program II, an option that allows Duke undergradutes to craft their own major. What is she leaning towards? Just what she taught the girls of Madison County: empowerment through education.