'What Lights Up Sparks': Conversation With a Rhodes Scholar

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By: 
By Cameron Bren
Higgins addressing the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School Board.

Colin Higgins, a University of Wisconsin-Madison student and Middleton native, was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship in November and will go on to Oxford University in the fall to continue his studies. 

Despite an outstanding collegiate career, triple majoring with comprehensive honors in environmental studies, geography and history and pursuing a Master of Public Affairs degree at the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs, Higgins says he wasn’t the greatest student or even very interested in school until a few key teachers and courses at Middleton High School (MHS) changed his perspective.  

Higgins says it wasn’t until the end of his sophomore year at MHS that “things sort of flipped.”  He recalls his tenth grade English class with Ryan Haugen reading classics such as 1984, Brave New World, and Catcher in the Rye sparking an interest in literature. 

“Mr. Haugen always took time to really explain the concepts in the book and was able to strike my philosophical interest in literature,” he said,  “I had his class right before lunch and would often stay the whole lunch hour talking about the books and that really is what made me realize that school could be super interesting and fulfilling.”

During his junior year Higgins joined the ecology club at MHS, initially to get closer to crush, but ended up finding the material really “interesting, cool, and relevant.” 

He also credits former MHS environmental science teacher Deb Weitzel as one of his biggest inspirations, and his social studies teacher Ann Parks, who got him interested in the critical potential of history and how stories of labor rights or gender weren’t told in the typical narrative.

“I realized there was a lot that I was interested in,” he said. “It just took a little bit of reframing from the traditional frames we are presented with in school.”

While Higgins found environmental studies compelling, he says it was his art classes that really brought it all together for him.  He did a lot of painting and computer art at MHS and found that the classes allowed him the space to express his creative side on paper, not necessarily through writing.

“The whole time the thing that really kept me going through school was art,” he noted.  “In those classes I synthesized a lot of the ideas I was working through in a more academic sense and all of that really got me interested in learning.”  

Higgins says his fascination with art is what initially got him into UW-Madison.

“I barely got into UW because it is tough to do from Middleton - especially if you don’t have a stellar GPA because you weren’t that into high school,” he explained.  “I actually got into UW as an art major, so art was a really crucial part of my development.”

Aside from academics and art, Higgins says his time running cross country at MHS helped shape his curiosity and was something he noted in his application for the Rhodes Scholarship.

“Running is spending a lot of time either talking with a small group you are running with or alone in your own head running through new spaces and looking at the world through the different lenses you are presented with in school,” he expounded.  “It gave me a lot of time to reflect and develop a curiosity and perspective that has driven me since then.”

Higgins offered some suggestions to students who, like him, don’t always find motivation in the high school classroom.

“First, don’t be discouraged if something isn’t clicking or if you’re not motivated by something; to this day there are things that don’t motivate me or don’t click, that is part of it, figuring how to grind through those and make due,” he laid out.  “Second, seek out those opportunities where you have a bit more freedom to figure out what it is that you like doing, what lights up sparks.”

“I worked on a farm and one of the people there always described it as doing what makes your heart sing and I really like that framing,” he went on.  “You might not know what it is, I still don’t know quite what it is, but there are things I find I do and everything else sort of disappears.”

Higgins posits that taking classes in art, literature, and humanities in particular allow the space to explore the more free-form and open-ended parts of human experience and develop curiosities that pull one forward.

“Political and social context make everything else endlessly fascinating,” he said.  “There are some scientific papers I could not read without understanding the particular importance in a place and in a moment in time, but once I have both of those the paper becomes this incredibly fascinating document of how people were trying to understand things then.”

During his first year in college he participated in an interest group called nature and culture. In it, he first read an essay from UW professor and Rhodes Scholar William Cronon.  He says the experience sent him careening joyfully down the path he is on today.

 “The essay asked a bunch of very interesting questions and didn’t present full answers to them in how we think about nature, society and wilderness,” Higgins explained.  “Those questions have stuck with me and united my interests from high school in politics, philosophy, the environment and how it works, massive environmental change, and also in art, humanities and representations of the world.  It funneled those all together and opened my eyes to geography.”

Higgins says most peoples’ idea of geography aren’t quite accurate. It’s something he hopes to see change.

“I think geography should be taught more widely in the U.S.,” he said.  “Most people think of maps, but it is really the study of how we think about space, be that urban, rural, or space we think of as natural or artificial and how the politics, culture, social practices, and also the material constitution of that space.  Geography lumps that all together and is sort of broad - it is the study of space, history and time.”

Higgins says he also got looped into progressive political organizing by working on a Green Party campaign in high school and was encouraged to run for student government at the UW.  He ran and was elected. During his tenure he started an environmental sustainability committee and a $50,000 green fund that supports student driven environmental projects on campus.  

“I wanted to get involved with campus sustainability when I got here, but there wasn’t an avenue within the student government,” he said.  “I thought for the sake of the campus and future students there should be one.”

That naturally pulled him into other projects, he says.  He worked for the UW’s Office of Sustainability to implement environmental and socially sustainable practices into UW functions.  He says he did a lot with food purchasing and trying to educate and gently nudge campus organizations to make different choices in where and how they purchase their food.  

Higgins then took a turn into research.

“My experience at UW raised a whole bunch of questions for me about how we can be trying to do so much for the environment, but how things can be so unchanged,” he said.  “A lot of those questions for me came down to questions about politics, bureaucratic and social structures, and resources.”

He started working with UW Geography professor Morgan Robertson, who studies market based environmental policies, putting a price on nature in order to capture resources for conservation and remedy current problems with pollution and shortcomings of environmental policy.

“It is really fulfilling to me because it answers both practical and lofty theoretical questions about the meaning of nature in the current political economy where funding is scare and capital moves around the globe so quickly, but it also allows space to make tangible interventions and suggest policy proposals,” he explains.

Higgins says being awarded the Rhodes Scholarship has given him validation that the perspectives he’s been developing and espousing and trying to act on have value to people beyond himself.   

“Being able to convince a room full of people to give you a scholarship based on your ideas, for me that is really huge, because it is a validation that is hard to come across,” he said.

He says its also a great opportunity to get to know the 31 other Rhodes Scholars from the U.S. and about 50 others from around the world who have a whole array of experiences and takes on the world that they want to use to change society. 

“I’m thrilled to get to know them and get to watch them after the Rhodes take their ideas and act on them and try to make a better world - a better place where we can feel more fulfilled and free,” he stated.

Higgins added that he is also looking forward to being at Oxford and studying with some of the most innovative thinkers in geography and political theory.

“Oxford is a very surreal place, it’s as if ideas and inspiration just float through the air there,” he said.  “You walk down a street and think, ‘oh C.S. Lewis, Isaac Newton, and J.R.R. Tolkien all walked the same path. It is just mind blowing.”

Higgins says he knows the Rhodes Scholarship will open a lot of new doors that he never knew existed.  He anticipates it will also change and shape him in ways he can’t foresee, but he hopes to be able to continue his research.

“I hope to end up in academia at a public research institution and run a research center on environmental politics and policy from around the world and study peoples’ everyday … struggles for a cleaner environment and more control over resources to determine their environments, and the ways the environment shapes society, politics, and world views,” he said.

“In and ideal world, I’d like it to be at a research center that bridges humanities and physical science approaches to understanding and solving problems and proposes policy solutions to policy makers.”

Higgins says there is one thing he really hopes to bring to broader discussion.

“What I hope to convince people is that nature is never outside of society, it is a social idea and is frequently used to push things outside the realm of political debate,” he explains.

Higgins points to the an example in the early 20th century where the concept of the “natural” was used to keep women from working certain jobs, because they were thought to be weak and frail.  He says a similar case could be made for race or colonial claims to land.

“By bringing nature back into the changeable realm of society and politics and thinking about nature in its social context, I think we can see new policy solutions and hopefully more just outcomes or at the very least tell the stories that weren’t told because they were thought to be natural,” Higgins said.  “That being said, nature is still a physical thing, and the social construct of nature can only go so far, because at the end of the day there are still trees and mountains and streams that are being used by people.  The relationship between physical and socially constructed nature still hasn’t been fully figured out yet.”

Higgins was recently recognized by the Middleton-Cross Plains Area Board of Education and spoke before board members about his experiences in the district and beyond.

 

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