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Debra Burgess has lived all her life in the Braxton-Webster region of West Virginia, where narrow roads twist up the mountainsides and cell phones don’t work. Local residents lucky enough to find jobs mostly engage in mining or logging.
“I come from a long line of non-high school graduates,” says Burgess, though she was among the first to break with tradition by braving the commute to West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, some 40 arduous miles from home. “I was scared,” she recalls. But she stuck it out, majoring in elementary education, and returned to teach kindergarten and primary grades in Hacker Valley, at the same tiny elementary school she had attended.
Burgess learned of the Health Sciences and Technology Academy (HSTA) when her daughter joined. Now, as an HSTA field-site coordinator in Flatwoods, West Virginia, she is trying to smooth the path for other young people in her community. “The obstacles these students face are overwhelming,” she says. “Coming from a similar background, I understand what they are up against. One boy who graduated in the top 10 in his class at Flatwoods High School lasted two weeks in college. It was just too intimidating.”
So Burgess teaches her HSTA students what she calls survival skills. “They don’t know what college is like, and many of their families are resistant to them leaving,” she says. “It’s a matter of believing in people and showing them what’s possible.”
Burgess’s mission to help her neighbors break barriers to a better life is already working in her own family. Her brother and sister went to college, and she recently attended her mother’s college graduation.