Retail roads lead back to campus: Irish Studies grad returns to help manage the Bookstore

Sometimes our various paths in life combine, intertwine and come around full circle, in a way that makes perfect sense. That’s how it feels for Kathleen Higgins BA’11, whose retail career path brought her back in March to be assistant manager of the Saint Mary’s University Bookstore.

“It’s really neat to be back on campus,” says Higgins, who majored in Irish Studies. She is delighted to reconnect with her former professors and to soak up opportunities like the D’Arcy McGee public lectures, which highlight fresh research perspectives on Ireland and the Irish experience.

During her time as a student, Higgins was juggling a lot of priorities. She completed her degree over a seven-year stretch, working full time the whole way through as an assistant manager with a chain of pet supply stores.

“It was right at a time when I was in my competitive prime with highland dancing as well; I was competing nationally and internationally,” she says, adding she had a chance in 2008 to perform in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Dance remains a huge part of her daily life as an entrepreneur who runs her own school in Dartmouth, the Higgins School of Highland Dance. Last year, she and her students were invited by Ottawa’s Sons of Scotland Pipe Band to take part in a tour of Scotland – including a private performance for Queen Elizabeth II at Balmoral Castle!

“It was a rather large deal,” says Higgins. “I don’t think I’ve fully processed it yet. I retired from competing and performing a couple of years ago, but I came out of retirement for that performance.”

It was surreal to dance with the Queen watching from just a few metres away; after the performance, Prince Edward chatted at length with the dance group.

Here on campus, it’s a daily thrill for Higgins to see students and alumni wearing Saint Mary’s hoodies and other items that she has ordered. She understands the strong sense of school spirit, and why there is such pride in the university.

“I really loved my time as a student at Saint Mary’s,” she says. “I love the culture here. I loved not being a number. Students really have the opportunity to get to know their professors, and it makes for a much more enjoyable educational experience.”

She also highly recommends the Irish Studies Program for its broad outlook on Irish and Irish-Canadian culture, with courses in language, history, literature, political science, geography, folklore and more.

“For a small program, it certainly makes a large footprint,” she says, adding “we have very strong Celtic roots in my family. My mom’s side is all from Cape Breton. So the Irish Studies program really made sense, it felt like a good fit.”

In recent years, Higgins had been working with the PetSmart retail chain as an operations / assistant manager. With 17 years of retail and management experience under her belt, the SMU Bookstore job jumped out at her when it became available. The store carries a wide range of products beyond books and clothing, from residence supplies to giftware and an increasing array of technology items. Higgins particularly enjoys the creative aspects, such as working with staff on seasonal arrangements, and designing fun displays to boost sales.

She once considered pursuing a master’s degree in Irish language and spending time overseas. In her last year of studies, she met her future husband and the plan changed. The couple lives in Dartmouth with a brood of three dogs, two rats and an albino axolotl, which is a type of aquatic lizard.

“Marriage seemed more important in the long term but it’s neat, because life throws different things at you,” says Higgins. “So I stuck it out in the retail world, because that’s what I had known and that’s where my experience was. And then this came up at Saint Mary’s, so it just kind of came full circle.”

— Marla Cranston, Faculty of Arts