Honors Alumni Q&A with Amanda Higgins '07
Amanda L. Higgins '07
Profession: Community Engagement Administrator, Kentucky Historical Society.
Education: Amanda graduated from UK and the Honors program in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in history. A scholar in American history, she went on to earn her master's degree in 2009 and completed her Ph.D. in 2013.
What was your major and are you working in that field today?
I majored in History and I am lucky enough to have a career in the field today. I work as a public historian for the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort. I oversee the oral history and historical markers program, managing a small team dedicated to serving the entirety of the commonwealth. We work to provide trainings, grant funding, and opportunities for communities to use their local history to address the challenges of today and tomorrow. Part of that work includes advocating for Kentucky history, while demanding an inclusive past—Kentucky was much more than Daniel Boone and Henry Clay.
We work with sites across the state to help tell histories that do not just center narratives of the wealthy or white or men. When the stories we share about our past include a truer, fuller representation of who we were, we can move toward understanding who we are today and who we might be tomorrow.
What was your career goal in college? (If that changed, how?)
My career goals bounced around a lot in college. I came to UK as a journalism major and wanted to be an investigative journalist, like Christiane Amanpour. But I dropped out of Journalism 101 for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was my inability to write fast enough for day-to-day journalism. I gravitated to history because the things I liked about journalism—digging through research, connecting dots, explaining significance and helping people see how seemingly esoteric decisions affect their lives—are done well by professional historians. Still, I didn’t think I’d actually be a historian. It was a step toward being a lawyer and eventually a law professor. So, I took political science and history courses on the law and the Constitution. I liked the material and building arguments based on precedent. But I didn’t like “the law.” I cared about the implications of the law—the way decisions played out in people’s lives and how the law was applied in inequitable ways. It was clear that I wouldn’t make a good lawyer and I skipped the LSAT. I took the GRE and started the Master’s program at UK in the fall of 2007.
Again, I thought I’d be a professor—like most young, brash graduate students I expected I’d be the unicorn that would find a tenure track job and be willing to chase it across the country. But like the rest of my story, by the time I got to the end of my PhD, I was rooted deeply in the bluegrass, with a partner in a great job and the opportunity to live and work in a state that had invested much in me. I chose to stay and sought out ways that I could have a fulfilling career in history while reinvesting in Kentucky.
As I was finishing my dissertation, I had the opportunity to work at the Kentucky Historical Society as a graduate editorial assistant. I helped edit the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society and ran the book reviews section. I was asked to write history vignettes—small pieces that are on the screens of legislators each day of the legislative session—and eventually had to defend some of my choices to the director of the institution and another state government official. That experience, translating deep research into easily read 150-word snapshots, plus talking out language choice and the process of getting from idea to finished product, led me to today. It illustrated that teaching happens in a million different ways and the classroom is anywhere you define it. When KHS had an opening for an associate editor, I jumped at the chance and have been serving Kentucky for more than five years.
Who is your hero?
Heroes are a tricky thing for historians. People are flawed and we’re trained to find the whole truth or as much of it that we can. Still, I admire Representative John Lewis beyond measure—his bravery, his steadfast determination to push the US to live up to its founding principles of equality, his service, and his joy were all heroic in my mind. I am inspired by Kentuckian Anne Braden, who devoted her life to equity and justice without fear. And if you’ll spare me a bit of sappiness, I am awed by friends who have turned personal tragedy into hope and service. Their resilience, strength, and grace are guideposts for all of us who are lucky to know them.
What motivates you to work hard?
I grew up the child of hard-working, self-motivated, dedicated parents. They modeled a work ethic of showing up and giving all you can—both in the workplace and in your community. As I’ve aged, that internal motivation has helped me when I didn’t want to work so hard. Today, my children motivate me to continue to serve—so that their journeys are a bit easier and their world is fuller. I believe in Kentucky, in the good in this commonwealth—getting to that good, serving my fellow Kentuckians, helping us all better understand our past and expanding opportunities for our future is work worth doing. And I love working for that future. Even on the days when I hate doing it.
What is your favorite book to read?
I like stories that are a bit mysterious, that take time to unfold. I’ve been reading a lot of Kentucky fiction lately—Silas House and Bobbie Ann Mason. My favorite author is Kurt Vonnegut and my favorite book not by Vonnegut or a Kentuckian, is John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. I don’t even know if it is that good, but it was introduced to me by a beloved high school English teacher at just the right moment.
I could spend 5,000 words praising non-fiction writers who are doing groundbreaking historical and contemporary work, but I don’t have that space and I don’t want to leave anyone out. So, instead, I’ll say—take a history course with the amazing faculty at UK and you’ll have the chance to learn with award-winning authors who assign incredible works!