After Gigi DeJoy, ’15, was born, her parents bought an RV and began a road trip around the country, looking for a good place to live with their infant and three dogs. They visited almost every state before deciding that nothing quite lived up to their starting point — a small island town off the coast of Maine.
So they turned around and went home.
It’s no surprise that her connection to the town is so strong that, when the time came for her to pursue a research project, she quickly thought of home.
“Originally I thought I might want to travel abroad, but I realized there were practical barriers to that,” she says. “I felt like it was important to have a good understanding of an area's culture — as in, more than three months spent there — before trying to analyze it. So the natural conclusion was to come home to coastal Maine, where I already knew the local language, customs and cuisine.
“Plus, it's easily my favorite place on earth.”
As part of her sociology senior honors thesis, she spent the summer studying the island women’s reproductive health care resources and decision-making from a medical anthropological perspective. While DeJoy’s family moved to a nearby town on the mainland when she was four, she chose instead to return to the island for an immersive look at the citizens.
DeJoy cataloged such details as available reproductive health care resources and providers; the cost of health care; how the Affordable Care Act changed health care options; and how stratifications of socioeconomic class and race affect women’s access to health care and the kinds of providers they seek out. But her local knowledge allowed her a more nuanced view that went beyond numbers and data.
“I had a general idea of the hospitals that were within a reasonable drive, which doctors I had good or bad experiences with, what kind of sex education you got in school,” she says. “I also saw a lot of girls ‘settling down’ during or right out of high school, and more often than not, that meant babies. So I was curious how much of that was cultural, or a choice, and how much of it was a lack of resources on a more institutional level.
“I'm definitely a person who connects more with stories than with numbers, but I do feel like it's hard to make a good point without both. It's been great to pick out a trend or something that seemed outside of the norm from the interviews and be able to look at the facts and see what it means on a wider scale.”
With both data and anecdotal evidence, DeJoy is hoping to bring more services to the remote island. Small population size is a problem for many of Maine's islands, whose distinct cultural, economic, and ecologic needs don’t often catch the eye of national nonprofits and government agencies. While some nonprofits and community-run initiatives are working on the island, DeJoy hopes her research will provide better documentation that could draw attention to the needs of women in remote communities.
And after a summer at home, DeJoy is returning to Richmond with a better understanding of the small community where her parents chose to raise their family after considering every option.
“The island has a wonderful, rich history of women coming together to support their community and each other,” she says. “The boat builders, captains and crew members from the Maine coast were some of the most well-traveled, cultured people around, but these women would be maintaining their houses and raising children alone through the really harsh seasons. So these ‘ladies' clubs’ would spring up to raise money for women who needed extra help, take in children that needed a new home and just give each other company and advice.”