Jennifer Marshall-Higgins’ strong work ethic formed long before her successful career in public relations. While most teenagers played sports or video games, Marshall-Higgins juggled school plus two to three part-time jobs to help ease the financial burden at home. Today, she maintains this ambition, as well as an attitude of gratefulness and joy, as she balances career and family.
Marshall-Higgins is also living proof that even when life goes off course, it’s never too late to find its way back again. After graduating college with big city dreams and a degree in journalism and public relations, she found herself taking a detour in retail just to make ends meet. But her work ethic and determination helped her stay focused on her end goal: a long-term career in public relations. Her sacrifices and resolve, not to mention her decision to take a few risks along the way, led her to 16 years at Education Service Center Region 12, where she currently serves in the customer and marketing services department.
Wacoan writer Elizabeth Oates chatted with Marshall-Higgins by phone to find out how this community-minded wife and mother got her career back on track — and found her calling in the nonprofit sector.
WACOAN: Where did you grow up?
Marshall-Higgins: I grew up in West, Texas, down the road where everyone stops to get their kolaches. I really enjoyed it; it’s a wonderful town.[I’m an] only child. Lost my father when I was almost 5. At that time we lived in Alvarado, but my mom’s family is from Abbott and they had moved to West and had a Czech background. So I stayed in West all through school — attended China Spring one year and enjoyed that, but West is still home.
WACOAN: And where did you go to college after West?
Marshall-Higgins: I attended MCC for about a year and a half, had some scholarships. It was really a great transition school to come from West that was so small, and then I moved over to Baylor. I think if I had moved directly to Baylor it would have been more of a difficult transition.
WACOAN: Is that where you and your husband met?
Marshall-Higgins: We actually met in my last semester at Baylor. [Chris] is from Gatesville, and he was in his last few months of serving in the Army. He was based in Fort Hood. That was three months before graduation, so that turned everything upside down from what I thought I was going to do.
WACOAN: Love has a way of doing that to people. What did you think you were going to do before you met your husband?
Marshall-Higgins: I obtained a degree in journalism and public relations and really enjoyed that program at Baylor — and it’s just grown and is even more amazing now. So I wanted to move to Austin. I had enjoyed visiting Austin when I was in college. But I found it a little difficult to get that first job and actually pay the rent and eat and have gas.[Chris and I] kept talking and dating. He was thinking about going to Angelo State [University], and he decided he really wanted to have some community college time to help with that transition. He decided to go to MCC and then go to Tarleton.
WACOAN: And when did y’all get married in this whole timeline?
Marshall-Higgins: We got married in May 2001.
WACOAN: When did you graduate from Baylor?
WACOAN: OK, so just a couple of years after you graduated from Baylor. What was your first job after you graduated from Baylor?
Marshall-Higgins: Since I was having a hard time finding that first job, I was working part time at Dillard’s and really enjoyed it. I went into their management program and thought, ‘OK, love retail, love shopping. Maybe I can do something with design and communications in Dillard’s.’ But this was a way to get into the company.
So I did that for a year and became a manager and found out real quick there’s not too many off days in retail work. Started really putting a search on ‘Hey, I want to give my degree and field a chance.’
Then I found a position with the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau and, honestly, took a pay cut — a big pay cut — and just said, ‘I’ve got to invest some time in seeing if I can enter this field and build my skills.’ So I worked there supporting conventions and events and really enjoyed it, enjoyed the people I worked with. And then a [public relations] position became available with the Salvation Army about a year later, and [I] moved over to that.
I feel like I’ve always been service-minded — kind of that servant’s heart — and now I really can’t imagine working in anything other than a nonprofit service organization. I worked there for a year, got lots of great experience, and it was so fulfilling because you saw the impact almost every day or every week. That was very rewarding.
I had an opportunity come up from where I interned — I interned at Region 12 my senior year at Baylor, and they had an opening. I thought, ‘Oh gosh, I don’t have enough experience. But hey, I’ll throw my hat in the ring.’ Leadership was changing at Salvation Army so I thought this might be a good time to, you know, look. And I’ve been [at Region 12] ever since — since 2001.
WACOAN: That’s a long time. What is your job title at Region 12?
Marshall-Higgins: It’s director of customer and marketing services/quality and planning
WACOAN: How you would you summarize your job?
Marshall-Higgins: Overseeing communications and marketing services, how we serve our customers, creating that brand experience.
WACOAN: Who would you say are your customers?
Marshall-Higgins: Our customers primarily are educators: school teachers, administrators, other staff personnel that are supporting schools. We are a nonprofit service agency, but there are 20 in Texas. We were established by the Texas legislature to support schools in helping to increase student achievement. Region 12 has more than 200 staff and brings in more than 30,000 people each year. We serve 12 counties in Central Texas, 76 public schools and 11 charter schools.
Right now we’re celebrating our 50th anniversary of providing training and support for serving public schools and charter schools. We’ve been doing different activities to celebrate this, including creating a thank-you video for our customers, putting out some fun trivia on social media and organizing a 50th anniversary luncheon that will take place in September. We’ll invite superintendents, charter school directors and other staff to that event. We may also do a balloon release on our staff support day; I’m trying to think of fun things like that to incorporate.
WACOAN: Let’s switch gears here a little bit away from work and over to your family. Tell me what Chris does for a living.
Marshall-Higgins: He is a senior hydrologist for the Brazos River Authority.
WACOAN: I assume your job is more 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., pretty stable hours. Is that correct?
Marshall-Higgins: Oh well pretty traditional office hours, yes. But we serve when we’re called on, so that can mean after hours if a school district has a crisis: if there is a death of a student or an employee, a natural disaster or whatever. I’m a part of a crisis team.
It depends on the nature of the crisis. It may be helping the school with communications: communicating with the parents, working with the media. Then we have another coordinator who coordinates the grief response and works directly with the counselors. So sometimes it’s behind the scenes back at the office, and sometimes it’s on-site, depending on what they request.
WACOAN: What are your husband’s hours like compared to yours?
Marshall-Higgins: His are actually a little more traditional, I think. He’s generally 8-5, and then he is on call whenever. They oversee five lakes in Texas, so when he’s on call, if there is a lot of rainfall in that area, then he’s working with the [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers and others, managing the gates and operations, managing the water flow.
WACOAN: How many children do you have?
Marshall-Higgins: We have 8-year-old boy-girl twins. Their names are Michael and MacKenzie. We had them a little bit later in life, so that’s our two and only.
WACOAN: And where do they go to school?
Marshall-Higgins: They go to Woodway Christian.
WACOAN: What activities are they involved in?
Marshall-Higgins: MacKenzie participates in martial arts. And they’ve done different programs in the summer like the [Camp Invention] that Midway [ISD] runs. Michael is really into science, so he likes to attend some of the events that the Mayborn puts on.
They’ve tried dance, softball and gymnastics. While they aren’t in anything that requires many hours per week right now, we work to expose them to many options where they can find a passion and learn new skills. I’m excited to see how they might take to music and instruments this year.
Michael also has dyslexia, so he’s in therapy about three days a week. So that takes some time.
WACOAN: Does he do that at Baylor?
Marshall-Higgins: We have a wonderful lady who is a retired teacher — you know educators just don’t ever seem to retire — and she decided she wanted to go back and get a certification in dyslexia. So Michael has been part of her field work. She comes to the school and works with him three days a week. She’s amazing!
WACOAN: Do y’all have any pets?
Marshall-Higgins: We do. We have two dogs: a Bichpoo named Sophie and a Chipom rescue named Maggie. We also have a bearded dragon named Flash.
WACOAN: Wow! You are a brave mom to let that crew run around your house! Now, was your mom a working mom or was she a stay-at-home mom?
Marshall-Higgins: My mom was a working mom, and she always had a full-time job. Then [when I was] in high school she got laid off, and so she had two and sometimes three part-time jobs.
I started working when I was 16, primarily because she had lost her job and I wanted to be able to keep up with the expenses that are required when you’re in high school and help support my vehicle and things like that. So in high school I always worked two and three jobs.
I like to be busy. I guess I get happiness from getting things done and achieving things, coordinating.
WACOAN: Did you always know you would be a working mom?
Marshall-Higgins: Yes, I did get to stay home for a few months, and then I worked part time for a couple of weeks. I just felt like that was too hard. I felt like I had one foot at home and one foot at work. I feel like I’m a better mom working.
I’m amazed with women and men who stay home with their kids. It’s such a huge job and there’s so much to it, but working is the route I chose and it’s better for me.
WACOAN: Do you currently have any help with your kids like a nanny, a babysitter or after-school care?
Marshall-Higgins: They’ve done some different camps. They did a camp at the Y, they did [Pine Cove] Camp in the City earlier this summer at Harris Creek [Baptist Church], and they’re staying with grandma and great-grandma sometimes and then also First Baptist summer camp downtown.
It’s a real challenge finding the structure that I feel like is a good environment where they’re going to get enrichment and a lot of different activities. They were so blessed with Ruth Cowen taking them to all these different camps and giving them all these varied experiences. Summer child care is definitely a challenge
WACOAN: I’m sure. What kind of child care do you have during the school year?
Marshall-Higgins: After-school program at Woodway Christian.
WACOAN: I know at one time you and your family were members of Highland Baptist Church. Are you still members there?
Marshall-Higgins: Well, I grew up in the Catholic faith and left, and Chris has always grown up in Baptist churches. So we’ve visited here and there and have tried to find something that fits both our needs. Of course when you bring children into the decision-making process, that makes a huge impact. So now for me it’s just, ‘Where can I go to worship, but also where can I go to grow in my faith, help me be a better mom, help me be a better person, to just live the life that [God] put me here to be?’
WACOAN: What are two or three things you do to keep your family organized?
Marshall-Higgins: I love to make lists, and I use Google Calendar — I have everything on my phone. I use apps like Google Keep. I use the H-E-B grocery list; things where my husband and I can sync between our phones to know what’s going on.
But I’m a very tactile person. I feel like I learn and process that way, so I still have and use a paper calendar. Then I have little magnetic calendar on the fridge, and that’s primarily where we put the kids’ activities and things that are going on. So it’s kind of several different ways to keep everyone organized.
WACOAN: What is Google Keep?
Marshall-Higgins: It’s an app where you can create a bunch of electronic lists. So you can have one tied to your work email for work functions and one tied to your personal email.
I’m also a little bit obsessive about completing things, and there’s tons of little lists on there. There might be ‘Summer Work to Complete Around the House’ or ‘Ideas for Birthdays Gifts’ that come up across the year. I just like to store that information and reference it when I need it.
WACOAN: Awesome! I’m going to have to check that out.
Marshall-Higgins: Yeah, I put my packing lists in there, things like that.
WACOAN: I’m an organization junkie, so I love stuff like that.
Every mom wants to know how to tackle dinners on busy nights, like when your daughter has her martial arts or your son has his activities and no one’s getting home at the same time. How do you tackle dinner? What’s your secret?
Marshall-Higgins: Well my husband just walked in and made the mean-muscle look because fortunately for the kids he is our wonderful cook and loves cooking. Often he gets home sooner than I do, so he’ll go ahead and get things started and help the kids with homework and get things ready for the next day. It’s a partnership.
That was something I was very upfront about before we got married — I don’t enjoy cooking. I wasn’t raised to do things in the kitchen. I wanted to, but my mom would always say, ‘Go play.’ So I guess that had an impact on me. I’m not real comfortable cooking and baking and so forth.[Husband talking in the background.]
He’s reminding me about a microwave dinner that I recently burned beyond recognition.
WACOAN: No need to bring up things from the past.
Marshall-Higgins: The other thing is I’ve tried some of those home delivery, home grocery systems.
WACOAN: Like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh?
Marshall-Higgins: Yes! We found those to be a little bit harder. I don’t know, I think there’s probably easier levels we could have gotten into, but it would still end up taking 35-40 minutes just to get it together and get it into the oven, then you have the cook time. We’re trying to see, ‘OK, what can we do where we can have the kids eating by 6:30 p.m. at the latest?’
WACOAN: Right. I’m with ya on that. I’ve heard they have a lot of technical ingredients. And I know they give them to you, but I’ve heard that they’re not always kid-friendly meals.
Marshall-Higgins: No, no they’re not. And [my kids] are pretty easy.
I’ll tell you what else we do because kids can be pretty picky eaters — my daughter is. So we give her the option: if she doesn’t like the meal, we always ask her to try it. If she doesn’t [like it], she has the option to make herself a turkey sandwich or she doesn’t eat. That may sound awful, but we’re trying to manage those expectations and also show appreciation for the time spent making dinner.
WACOAN: I think that’s great. So aside from eating dinner together, what else do you like to do together as a family?
Marshall-Higgins: We love to have friends over and grill in the backyard, especially in the summer. We’ll go visit some family who have property out in Gatesville and [go] fishing, walking around. They have horses; we’ll do a little bit of horse riding.
Even if it’s just going to town together and having lunch, it’s just being together. Maybe going to the Mayborn Museum or the Dr Pepper Museum, but just trying to have those experiences together.
WACOAN: And now what do you and Chris like to do together apart from the kids?
Marshall-Higgins: Well, that is a challenge, but when we do get to do something, we both really enjoy wine and just learning about all the different types of grapes and especially the wine region that’s growing in Texas and all the Texas wines that are coming out.
So we enjoy visiting The Grape. Just recently we visited Kissing Tree Vineyards in Bruceville-Eddy. Just doing a wine tasting, live music, going to dinner.
WACOAN: That sounds fun. Good for ya’ll that you get away and just have a little bit of alone time.
Marshall-Higgins: We need to do it more often.
WACOAN: Don’t we all? It’s so hard to get away. When you’re not working, being a wife and mom, what do you like to do to unwind?
Marshall-Higgins: I like to work out. Right now I’m really into PiYo by Beachbody on Demand. I love their workouts because you can do them anywhere. If I can squeeze in a workout, it has to be at 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. and from home. I’ve never found another time that works consistently and fits our schedules.
I also just downloaded an app that a friend recommended. It’s called Headspace, and it’s supposed to help you do meditation.
WACOAN: Well, even though you’re from West, what is your favorite thing about Waco now that you’re technically a Wacoan.
Marshall-Higgins: I like that Waco doesn’t feel like a real large city. It’s very easy to get connected and meet other people. I just finished the Leadership Waco program a few years ago and really enjoyed all the individuals I met, to the point where I have been working on my husband to apply and he finally applied and did it this last year.
We really enjoy talking about everything we learned about Waco and all the ways there are to get connected. He works in the [Leadership, Education and Development] program, and then I’m on the United Way board and also serve on the curriculum committee for Teen Leadership Waco program. So I love that it’s just very easy to get connected.
And then I think Waco still has so many unique mom and pop places where you can find unique shopping or really great places to go to eat. And it’s exciting to see the growth, to bring in some additional experiences for families. I love seeing all the water activities that are happening on the river, and also downtown.
I think the connections thing is the biggest thing for me. I’ve always enjoyed trying to connect people. If I hear somebody looking for something, ‘Oh, let me help you meet this person,’ or ‘If you go to this, you can find what you need.’