Meet the Students: Ashley Hicks

by Vicki Heisser  |   

As a child, Ashley Hicks faced many challenges moving back and forth between her small villages of Mentasta and Northway, Alaska. She grew up around alcohol and drug abuse, and throughout her life, she’s experienced failures and defeat. Yet through it all, she has persevered. Today she stands strong, determined and committed to being a positive role model for her four-year-old daughter, Dez'aiah.

In fourth grade, Hicks moved to the Native Village of Kluti-Kaah in Copper Center and has lived there since. Her mother grew up in Northway, and her father in Mentasta. Her clan is Niisuu, and her heritage is diverse. Ashley explains, “I'm Ahtna and Upper Tanana Athabascan. I'm also part Choctaw from Oklahoma. And a little bit of Russian.” 

After graduating from high school at 16, Hicks went to the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) as a nursing student. The years she was at UAA, Hicks shares, “I was on the dean's list, the chancellor’s list. I got a pretty large scholarship, and I did really well for the first two years of college.” But as Ashley was half way through her program, she started hanging out with the wrong people. She started failing classes and abusing drugs and alcohol. As she puts it, she had “a roller coaster ride of life, ups and downs, ups and downs.”

Hicks had a sobering experience when she got pregnant with her first child. Her son, Dae'Jon, was born in 2008 with a rare form of cerebral palsy called Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy (HIE). After he was born, the doctors weren’t sure Dae'Jon would make it. Ashley recalls that this experience was “rock bottom” for her. She turned to drugs and drinking to cope. “I was never taught healthy boundaries and how to be in a healthy environment.” 

Her choices caused her to lose custody of her son to the state. He was then adopted by his paternal grandmother. This adoption was fortuitous for Hicks because she lived only two houses away. “I'm so thankful because she stepped up and she took on the duties of being a mom. And she still allowed me to be a part of his life every day.”

Hicks knew she needed to get her life on track, and after time in a residential treatment center, she was on the road to recovery. After a while, Ashley had a daughter, Dez’aiah. But sadly, she lost her son, Dae'Jon when he passed away in 2019. Regardless of her loss, Ashley has not turned to drugs and alcohol. She’s focusing on her daughter and being the mother she wants to be. Ashley shares, “I looked at Dez'aiah and I could see myself. And I was like; I am breaking that cycle of addiction and breaking the cycle of abuse.”

Doing her best for her daughter, in part, meant going back to school to get her degree. “I want to be able to provide for her. I really, really have a passion for school, and that's one thing that keeps me motivated, keeps me going.”

That motivation also derives from her role models. Ashley is fortunate to have many role models in her life. One role model for Ashley is someone from her community, Jessica Rock. “She graduated from college. I think she has her master's degree. I admire all that she has done, too. I'm just amazed by all of the challenges that she has had. She persevered through it all.”

She also looks up to Suzanne McCarthy who has always been an encouragement. “She's always so amazing and somebody that I can reach out to any time of the night or day. I love her. She's been my motivator, big time.”

Ashley finds herself fortunate to also have the support of her Ahtna Elders. In particular, she connected with Elder Marilyn Joe. Ashley shares, “She's been one that has always seen something in me that nobody else has. She grew up in the same kind of environment as I did, and I just feel like she understands me all the way through.”

Someone else who understands Ashley and serves as one of her closest role models is her mother, Elaine Sam-Sanford. Ashley looks up to her mother because she, too, struggled with addiction. Although Ashley had a difficult childhood, she doesn’t blame her family. She understands that her own family was caught in the cycle, and she and her mother are working to break it. Ashley is deeply proud of her mother for her recovery, and for being sober for over a decade now. Seeing her mother’s sobriety helps Ashley maintain her own sobriety. For her, she is determined to ensure the cycle stops here.

With all of this support, Ashley is able to stay focused on getting her degree. She is currently taking the second part of the Elementary AHTNA language course, and she’s excited to be learning her native language. When she’s not in classes, Ashley works full-time for the Copper River School District as the Federal State Programs Administrative Assistant, and she’s in charge of Indian Education, Migrant Education, and Title 1 programs. She also works part time as the Recycling Our Areas Resources (ROAR) Coordinator. She is also, among other things, a regional Child Development Policy Committee (CDPC) member, Regional Parent Committee (RPC) member and Glennallen School Indian Education Committee District Representative.

With all of the progress she has made, both personally and professionally, Ashley is very hopeful for her and her daughter’s future. “I believe in my God, creator, Jesus, and I feel like he has really opened up doors for me. He never gives me more than I can handle. My schedule is hectic, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I would not want to go back to the years where I was struggling. Staying busy is what helps keep me focused and grounded on my sobriety. I am dedicated to my daughter and her well-being.”

This dedication has helped carry Ashley through her program, and she will be graduating with her degree from PWSC in May. She is proving every day that she is a positive role model for her daughter and those in her community.