For Isabella Higgins ‘21, attending Geneseo was much more than just the next step after high school—it was a way to forge a path honoring the values of education and civic engagement instilled in her by her family.
Higgins’ mother, an Italian immigrant, went back to SUNY Albany to finish her undergraduate degree when Higgins was in fourth grade and is now a Ph.D. candidate. Her father, a labor lawyer, was the great-grandson of one of Albany’s first black attorneys. Her older sister, a Siena College graduate, works at Albany City Hall as a policy analyst and the mayor’s liaison to the city’s Policing Reform and Reinvention Collaborative.
“I saw how hard the people in my life had to work and how satisfied they were when they got their degrees,” Higgins, a double major in English and psychology, says. “It meant a lot to me.”
Sadly, two weeks into Higgins’ first year in college, her father passed away unexpectedly. The loss made her even more determined to excel in memory of him and his support of higher education.
In addition to managing a double major, Higgins serves as the public relations chair of Sigma Tau Delta, captain of Women’s Club Frisbee, and she’s an active member of Hips ‘n’ Harmony and Phi Eta Sigma.
“I like being busy,” she says with a laugh. “And meeting new people is one of my favorite things—I’ve met some of my best friends through these groups.”
Higgins was also accepted into the McNair Scholars Program in Summer 2020, which she credits as a “great support system” that helped her stay on track with academic goals and strengthened her confidence.
“I’m so thankful I got in,” she says. “It’s empowering to see what other students in my cohort are doing, and I’ve benefited a lot from hearing alumni speakers share experiences overcoming roadblocks and issues that I’ve faced.”
Higgins has applied her passion for diversity, equity, and social justice to the McNair Program’s research component. She’s working with Professor Monica Schneider and Geneseo’s Comprehensive Campus Climate Assessment Committee to study the social and academic impact of microaggressions.
“A lot of times when people think about discrimination and exclusion, they think of overt forms, but those aren’t the only way they happen,” she says. “The literature and students have shown us how harmful microaggressions are, so we want to recommend and implement tangible changes at Geneseo like new policies and training.”
Higgins has also taken her social justice work off-campus, collaborating with Professor Christine Merrilees and other students to provide feedback to Mayor Margaret Duff on the Village of Geneseo’s recent police reform proposal.
“There needs to be this discussion of why reform is needed in the first place and how police have historically harmed BIPOC communities, so individuals aren’t further marginalized or made to feel that their distrust in the system is invalid,” Higgins says.
Higgins plans to use the knowledge gained through these hands-on experiences examining institutional and government policy as she sets her eyes on Howard University School of Law, where her great-grandfather went.
“Policy language and structure can be confusing—it can feel like you need a specific niche education on the topic and policy writing to understand it,” she says. “I love the idea of being able to work on information accessibility for marginalized groups.”
While Higgins is disappointed her family can’t attend graduation due to COVID-19 restrictions, she knows they’re still thrilled to celebrate her accomplishments at Geneseo and that she’s continued her family’s tradition of prizing education and service to others.
“I’m very proud of my time at Geneseo, and I’ve had an amazing senior year,” she says. “Commencement will be a testament to my journey here.”