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James Higgins

This Pirate is taking
steps to educate a new generation

Interior design student James Higgins is taking steps to educate a new generation on historic preservation and sustainability.

Higgins’ interest in architecture began early. “I took a drafting class in ninth grade and just loved it,” he said. “I just had a knack for the design process.”

After graduating from high school, Higgins went on to receive an associate of applied science in interior design from Fairmont State University in West Virginia. For 30 years, he worked for Sears Roebuck and Company in several management positions before parting ways with the corporation in 2007.  

In January 2013, after realizing that he wanted to return to the architectural field, Higgins began pursuing his bachelor’s degree in interior design at East Carolina University. One of his main interests in the design field is historic preservation and adaptive reuse of existing buildings.

“I’m not a big believer in building something new just for the sake (of it) when there are hundreds of houses and buildings sitting empty that are just rotting into the ground,” he said. “Growth does not necessarily equal prosperity and in this country we judge whether we’re doing well or not by how many new buildings are built.”

Higgins’ concern extends to sustainable building. “There’s no point in using new resources or letting something that’s existing deteriorate to the point where it has to be torn down and put in a landfill,” he said. “The cities that have been around for a while and the cities in the United States deserve better than that … Not only does that building have a history but, (so do) the people’s lives that pass through that building and what they did to get us where we are today as a nation.”
In his spare time, Higgins volunteers as a house captain, or project manager, for Rebuilding Together – Pitt County, an organization dedicated to repairing houses for low-income, elderly and disabled homeowners. His newest project begins this month.

Higgins hopes to one day integrate historical preservation into the interior design educational process as a professor. Since studying at ECU, he has worked as a teaching assistant for five courses and credits these experiences with allowing him to discover his true passion.

“The more I taught, the more I found that I want to teach,” said Higgins. “(Teaching) excited me more than the thought of going back out and working in (my field).”

Higgins will pursue a master’s degree in public history after graduation in May, a move that will allow him to educate university students.

“Instead of … going back to the private sector and working for a firm, I’ve decided that I want to pursue an upper level degree so that I can teach at the university level,” said Higgins. “There have only been a couple of times in my life that I ever felt this strongly about something. It’s been a great experience.”

How do you feel about sustainable building and adaptive reuse?

I think one thing that affected me really badly was watching what happened to Detroit when the auto industry started having problems. Detroit had suffered with the suburb issue enough. As things started to happen, just watching the grand, old important city with some wonderful pieces of residential and commercial architecture (become) abandoned. (They) were left to the point where they just rotted into the ground. These areas deserve better than that. Not just Detroit, but even small cities. You can look at all of the work that’s been done to revive downtown Greenville or all the work that’s happening in downtown Kinston. Try to revive those areas and make those areas viable again … When Detroit had to file bankruptcy that was a travesty. Detroit played a role in building this country. They’ve done their part. We have an obligation to do what we can. We have to have a respect for the city and for the people who built and lived and worked in those cities.

What inspired you to go back to college?

I woke up the morning of my 51st birthday and this was always something I wanted to do. I just never thought I would be able to do it or was brave enough to do it. It’s hard to just quit a job. It was one of those ‘Well, I’m 51 years old and if I don’t do this now, I’m never going to do it’ (moments). That was the largest contributing factor. Once I put my mind to it, I found there was a way to do it.

What would you say to someone who is afraid to go after what they truly want?

If you wait too long, sooner or later, it’ll be too late to do it. If it’s something you really want to do, if you look hard enough and realistically at the options, there’s generally a way to make it happen. You may have to change some things, but there’s always a way to make it happen.



Photography by: Cliff Hollis
Written by: Summer Tillman


College: Health and Human Performance

Major: Interior Design

Age: 54

Classification/Year: Senior

Hometown: Charleston, West Virginia

Clubs & Organizations: ASID Student Chapter, IIDA Student Chapter

Hobbies & Interests: Do-it-yourself projects, antique toy trains, period furniture


Favorite place to eat: The Boiler Room in Kinston

Favorite Movie: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951 Version, Vivian Leigh and Marlon Brando)

Favorite website: Amazon

Dream job: Retirement

Favorite place on campus: Rivers Building

Favorite hangout: Home

Favorite class: The Ancient City Pompeii, Dr. Steven Cerutti

Favorite band/musician: Little Feat

Favorite TV show: Night Court


Most Influential Professors: Dr. Katherine Swank and Susan Meggs, MFA

The one thing you cannot live without: Bill Wilson

Role Models: Anyone who has crossed my path and made a positive difference in my life.

Advice for fellow students: Life is short. Don't let anyone get in the way.

Your words to live by: "The question isn't who is going to let me; it's who is going to stop me" - Ayn Rand

James Higgins Profile
Words of Wisdom

"There’s no point in using new resources or letting something that’s existing deteriorate to the point where it has to be torn down and put in a landfill."

– Jim Higgins