For Natalie Higgins ’09, one thing has been constant: her love for her hometown of Leominster, Mass. The state representative for the 4th Worcester District now spends her days working for the citizens in her home community. Along the way, she has demonstrated a commitment to public service through her undergraduate work in political science, Spanish, and international relations, her participation in community organizing, her law degree, and professional experience in sexual violence prevention and higher education advocacy.
Higgins became involved with the Everywoman’s Center (now called the Center for Women & Community) through the Citizen Scholars Program (CSP), where she received training as a rape crisis counselor. Her senior project was focused on organizing the local and UMass Amherst communities to advocate for the passage of the 258E Harassment Prevention Order. Higgins recalls that she “was a small part of a statewide organizing effort, and it was the first time I saw grassroots advocacy be so successful and solve a huge gap in our laws. I credit my experiences in CSP with exposing me to and training me in grassroots organizing, and connecting me with powerful advocates across the state. I don’t think I would have ended up being elected as state representative without these experiences.”
After graduation, Higgins continued working in sexual violence prevention, joining an organization in Worcester as a teen counselor and community educator. Through this work, Higgins gained a deep understanding of the scope of the problem of sexual violence against women, and was moved to apply to law school in order to learn how to better protect sexual and domestic violence surviors through law and policy.
While at Northeastern University School of Law, she was awarded a Rappaport Fellowship in Law and Public Policy, which she used to work in Governor Deval Patrick’s Cabinet Affairs Office, drafting best practices to protect non-student minors from sexual violence on public college campuses. Additionally, Higgins traveled to India for three months to participate in a human rights and global economy fellowship, where she researched homeless shelters for pregnant women, and drafted three public interest litigation petitions concerning maternal healthcare access and quality of homeless shelters.
After passing the Massachusetts bar exam in 2014, Higgins was offered an opportunity to lead the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM), which advocates for better funded, affordable, and accessible public higher education in Massachusetts. “As a first-generation college student, UMass Amherst opened so many doors for me, and working with PHENOM seemed like a great way to give back and open more doors for future students,” says Higgins. As PHENOM’s executive director, she was responsible for fundraising, communications, and organizing the network chapters on campuses across Massachusetts.
In February 2016, the state representative for the 4th Worcester District of Leominster announced that he would not be running for re-election. Higgins decided to run for the seat — and against a well-known member of the community. She was told the odds were not in her favor, but she defeated her opponent by 38 votes in the primary and 2,000 votes in the general election. As a state representative, she currently serves on the following joint committees: Community Development and Small Business, Higher Education, Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery, and the House Committee on Technology and Intergovernmental Affairs.
Despite a full schedule, Higgins finds time to stay connected to UMass Amherst by mentoring fellows in the UMass Women into Leadership (UWiL) program. UWiL is a competitive leadership training and professional development program that seeks to prepare more women from UMass Amherst for public leadership after graduation. Drawing from her own experience, Higgins advises her mentees to “believe in yourself and surround yourself with people who believe in you and push you to think more critically. I also learned from my time as a rape crisis counselor: self-care — find out what recharges you and make time for that in your schedule.”