Abena Agyemang Higgins

Year of Graduation: 
Abena Higgins

“Even before the pandemic, there was a teacher shortage. I think it’s going to be what forces change in education in America.”

Maybe it came to her when she learned to milk a goat at summer camp in Vermont. Or perhaps during her three-hour round-trip commute from her home in Brooklyn to elementary school. More likely, Abena Agyemang Higgins ’03 realized just how much education matters while a student in the Prep for Prep program. Today, with a career that has included teaching abroad, education policy work and staffing classrooms, she’s focused on making sure quality education is accessible to everyone.

“Ask any school right now what is their biggest issue, and they’ll tell you it’s staffing,” Higgins says. “Even before the pandemic, there was a teacher shortage. I think it’s going to be what forces change in education in America.”

As chief of staff at Kokua Education, Higgins helps to alleviate the impact of the shortages by training retired baby boomers, artists and others to serve as guest teachers (who bring their unique experiences to classrooms on a short-term basis) and developing teacher-training programs for those looking for career do-overs and full-time positions.

Higgins never planned on a life in education. At Exeter, she participated in dance groups Precision Step and Imani, served as president of the Afro-Latinx Exonian Society, and ignited a love of travel in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where she spent her senior winter. She went on to Tufts, majoring in psychology and Spanish and studying in Spain. Her first post-college job was as an advertising agency associate account executive.

Though Higgins saw advertising as her career path, the Great Recession made it challenging, and she decided to step back. She signed on to a one-year program with the Spanish Ministry of Education in Madrid, teaching immigrants English while training school staff working with parents. She stayed for a second year, then returned to the U.S. to earn a master’s in economics and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, with a goal to work in international education policy. A stint teaching in a Bronx neighborhood not unlike the one she grew up in changed that. “I saw how little the students had and how much the school was trying to be for them, but couldn’t, and decided I was going to stay in education in America,” she says.

In 2013 she joined Families for Excellent Schools, where she managed 45 employees, organized rallies of thousands and lifted the caps on charter schools. For this work, she was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. Her long-term plan to lead the organization came to an abrupt halt when Families for Excellent Schools closed its doors. Disappointed, Higgins looked forward to a more low-key position at Kokua. Then COVID hit.

During the pandemic, Kokua provided virtual learning training and recorded COVID symptoms among school staffers. “We tracked every headache and runny nose,” Higgins says. “It felt like the responsible thing to do — we were asking them to go into buildings.”

Now Higgins will have the chance to learn about education in yet another country. She and her family recently moved to Amsterdam so her husband could be closer to work responsibilities in the Middle East and Africa. She’s excited about the opportunities living abroad will offer her 2-year-old twins. “If we stay long enough, they’ll know a language I don’t, which is a little intimidating,” she says with a laugh, perhaps recognizing the odds are good that she, too, will learn at least a few words in Dutch.

— Sarah Zobel

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the fall 2021 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.