Mountain Mover – Lauryn Higgins

MHU alumna lands dream job amid pandemic

by Shannon McBride

photo of Lauryn Higgins with front page of an edition of the New York Times

Ever since Lauryn Higgins was five years old, she dreamed of being a news reporter. Intrigued by Nancy Drew novels and inspired by stories she heard on National Public Radio while riding in the car with her father, Lauryn always knew what she wanted to do.

Unfortunately, it took the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus to propel her into her dream job.

In March 2020, she received a phone call from a former college classmate who needed help. “Do you want a job at The New York Times?” he asked. “We are in need of a few extra hands tracking this new virus.”

This “new virus,” of course, was COVID-19. Lauryn joined a team of about 20 people at the New York Times newspaper (NYT) who now work around the clock tracking every case of COVID-19. That’s right: every case in the world.

This extremely comprehensive data then provides the background for NYT articles on everything from college athletic and prison outbreaks to nursing home death percentages to predictions of when the virus will peak in different areas. Lauryn has a particular interest in college football and running, and so, her specific focus is on clusters of COVID-19 in college sports. Lauryn has contributed to several timely articles on COVID, including one on college towns and COVID impact, published July 29. (See links below.)

Growing up in Winston-Salem, Lauryn may never have foreseen that her love of sports and journalism would come together in just this way. She loved sports and found much success in high school on the cross country and track and field teams. She also loved watching football, so when it came time for college, she looked for a small school with a football team and a place for her on the cross country team. She applied to five colleges, but says her campus tour with Coach Mike Owens on “Buffalo Chicken Wrap Day Wednesday” in the dining hall sealed the deal. She fell in love with Mars Hill instantly!

Lauryn loved her time at Mars Hill, and says she misses the mountains. Some of her favorite professors and people on campus included Teresa Burkett, Ron Collins, Coach Mike Owens, Coach Brad Nagle, Heather Hawn, Brian Tinkle, Cindy Whitt, Brandon Johnson, and Matt Willing.

To help earn some extra money towards tuition, Lauryn worked as a photographer and editor of the school yearbook. She loved football, so taking photos of the games were a natural fit!

The weekly “Blueprint” meetings also created some of her favorite memories, and she takes pride in receiving a few awards for stories in The Cadenza Literary Magazine. By her senior year, Lauryn secured internships at the Asheville Citizen Times and WNC Magazine.

And on top of all that, she finished her education at Mars Hill University in three years.

Lauryn graduated from MHU in 2014 with a B.S. in business administration with a concentration in management. In 2016, she began graduate school online with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) from her apartment in Weaverville. When her lease ran out and her roommate got engaged, she knew it was time for her to move to Nebraska, despite not knowing a soul there.

Upon graduating in 2018 with her master’s degree in Journalism, she secured a job at UNL teaching a class called Intro to Reporting.
“It’s an honor to teach this class because I get to be the first instructor to work with the next generation of journalists and impart to them the importance and the power behind the free press,” she said.

She later added an in-depth reporting class that focused on climate change, and loves the fact that she was able to connect her students with younger children in the community in teaching them about the power that storytelling and journalism has in informing the public.

As much as she enjoyed teaching, Lauryn said she now feels a deep sense of purpose in helping provide factual information about an often-misunderstood topic to the world.

“I admit I experience some guilt about landing my dream job during this terrible pandemic, but I feel my work is vital to the issues at hand. It helps bring a sense of peace in a very chaotic world,” she said.

Lauryn has much hope in a vaccine that will help millions of people cope with the pandemic. And, she also has much hope that her work for the New York Times will continue for many years to come (in fact, she was notified of a promotion with the NYT the week after our interview!). “Maybe one day soon I will be able to share good news about a vaccine, but I still worry a lot about the homeless, the tribal communities, and many others who have little to no healthcare.”

The New York Times may seem miles away from Mars Hill University, but according to Lauryn, the education she received at MHU helped prepare her for this opportunity in her life.

“MHU prepared me for the real world and my career by teaching me the importance of community and the importance of working on a team. Because MHU is a smaller school, you get to know everyone quickly and that’s not something I would have gotten at any other college. In the real world and in any career, you have to work with all different types of people and MHU taught me that. I always say I got two different types of education at MHU: One that was ‘textbook’ oriented and one was ‘life skills’ oriented. These have carried me through my entire career and they are lessons that I cherish and hold with me every day.”

Some of the articles to which Lauryn has contributed: