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This mom is at the top of her class

by Linda Hiller

When Debra Higginson became a mother, her focus changed instantly.

“Becoming a mother was such a wonderful experience – once you hold that baby, everything that was before is changed. Maybe it was because Lee and I started a little late, but it was so important to us,” she said. “I had no idea it would change my life so profoundly.”

One of the other things that happened was a realization, almost an urgency, to finish the college accounting degree she had been working at here and there since before they moved to the Carson Valley in 1991.

“I don’t exactly know why, but when my son Dakotah was born, I had this sense of focus and knew I had to finish my accounting degree,” she said. “The problem was, I also wanted to be there for my son – he was premature, and so small. I wanted to protect him, and at the same time I felt this focused drive to finish college.”

While she was basking in the joy of motherhood, Higginson wrestled with how she could go to college and not shortchange her son. Her husband Lee, then working as a plant operator-mechanic for Granite Construction, was supportive of whatever Debra chose.

For a time, starting when Dakotah was six months old, she took a couple of evening classes at Western Nevada Community College and University of Nevada, Reno, trading parenting duties with Lee and occasionally her own parents, Ruhenstroth residents Harvey and Jean Garrett.

“Getting my degree was always a personal goal of mine, and my whole family knew it,” she said. “My family was always behind me and said they would help in any way to make it possible. I never could have done it without their help and support.”

Two years after Dakotah was born, his sister, Hannah, joined the family. Not much later, Debra’s parents saw an article in the newspaper that they thought might help their daughter acheive this goal that seemed to drive her and yet elude her.

“My parents saw an article about this telecommunications pilot program at UNR, and I looked into it,” she said. “It seemed too good to be true. The only problem was, I couldn’t major in accounting, I had to do management. Now, in retrospect, I’m glad of that because it broadened my experience and I found that I really enjoy the human resources field and may want to work in it someday, helping others like me find a schedule that works for them.”

The program Higginson discovered was through UNR’s College of Business Administration, which makes it possible for students to take “television classes” in Carson City instead of driving all the way to the Reno campus. It is a distance education program, also operating in Elko and other rural Nevada areas. The students admitted to the program still had to pay their own way, but the advantage was the nearer-to-home classes, which they viewed on camera.

Dr. Reed Scull, coordinator of academic programs for UNR continuing and distance education, said the students in this first outreach program far exceeded everyone’s expectations.

“We had 11 of the students graduate this year in the pilot program, and six graduated with honors – that’s pretty amazing,” he said. “Debra was a star in the class – I think she graduated with right around a 4.0.”

“I think it might have been more like 3.9,” she said.

“This group was self-confident and aggressive,” Scull said. “I called them the ‘glass ceiling bunch,’ because they are really going to go far.”

Scull said the sky is the limit on future classes and he welcomes suggestions from potential students in rural communities. Some of the implemented ideas so far are a masters degree program for teachers – most of whom have to work during the day yet need to further their education, as well as general studies and liberal arts degrees for people who just want to finish what they may have started years ago and, like Higginson, complete a personal goal of getting a college degree.

Higginson said she is proud of her accomplishment and full of ideas for how she might put her degree to word.

Now, she is content to have Dakotah and Hannah as her first priority, knowing that she has the degree and the expertise that she learned in “telecollege.” She operates Higginson & Associates, a bookkeeping and financial service from her home, working around the kids’ schedules. She chuckles when friends ask her when she’s going to put her new college degree to work.

“Right now, I’m taking a breather and I am just glad I accomplished my goal,” she said. “Still, my kids are number one to me and I want to be here for them always. My next goal is to build us a house on some land we own in Fish Springs. I grew up around lots of animals and I want to be able to provide that for Hannah and Dakotah.”