Jason Higgins’ job as a waiter while he was a college student served up more than a paycheck. It became the inspiration for his career.

Then a student at the University of Arkansas in Monticello, he waited tables at a Western Sizzlin restaurant. Over time, he noticed that a group of military veterans gathered there for coffee on Sunday afternoons. They would reminisce about their military experiences and seemed to share a common bond.

Higgins listened to their stories.

He also struck up a friendship with one of the World War II veterans, a Marine named Leslie Hoppers, who he interviewed for a class project on the Pacific war.

“I became interested in learning more,” said Higgins, who double majored in history and English as an undergraduate and now is a postdoctoral fellow in digital humanities and oral history at Virginia Tech.

Higgins has since recorded interviews with more than 100 veterans of many wars and conflicts, including formerly incarcerated veterans, for his doctoral dissertation.

This month, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the United States, announced that it would fund 226 projects nationwide, for a total of $31.5 million. A proposal by Higgins was one of them.

On behalf of the Center for Humanities at Virginia Tech, Higgins will receive more than $163,000  from NEH to host a two-week institute for high school teachers. It will focus on teaching educators how to incorporate oral histories of veterans into their classes. The institute, planned for June 19-30, will be held at Virginia Tech for the first week and in Washington, D.C., for the second week.

The institute will have two co-directors — Jim Dubinsky, associate professor of English and lead faculty member for the Veterans in Society initiative, and Trevor Stewart, associate professor of education and a Marine Corps veteran.

By sharing oral history techniques with educators, Higgins hopes to equip them with new ways of teaching important material.

“This allows teachers of literature or history or social sciences to be able to engage the curriculum through a different lens,” he said. “For many students, they like the experiential, hands-on learning, where they are actually doing research, interacting with a person who lived through history, and recording it. It brings them into part of that research process, which I think is an effective teaching tool.”

The institute is especially significant for Virginia Tech because of the university’s strong military roots, said Sylvester Johnson, director of the university’s Center for Humanities.

“It will advance public knowledge and understanding of the human face of war and military histories,” he said. “By creating this summer institute for K-12 teachers, thousands of students will benefit from learning about the rich tapestry of themes and experiences that oral history provides. This exemplifies the transformative and urgent role of humanities in modern life.”

Also, oral history work teaches students a variety of skill sets.

“Not only are you learning about history and storytelling, you are learning technology and communication and photography and videography,” said Higgins, who is co-editor of “Service Denied,” a book published in July that features stories of marginalized veterans in the 20th and 21st centuries.

At Virginia Tech, Higgins teaches in the Department of History and works with Virginia Tech Publishing. As a fellow, he is jointly affiliated with the Center for Humanities and University Libraries.

He already brings his oral history knowledge to Virginia Tech students. Last spring, he taught a class in which undergraduates interviewed 30 Vietnam War veterans. With the veterans’ permission, they submitted the recorded interviews to the Library of Congress.

“The vast majority [of veterans] tell me these are stories they never shared with anybody,” Higgins said. “Often it is something they don’t feel comfortable sharing with family members. It’s very empowering [for them]. It’s rewarding. It’s cathartic.”

Higgins conducted what he considers one of his most powerful interviews with a veteran in March. A Vietnam War veteran named Dennis Magnusen, who lived in California, emailed Higgins in response to a social media inquiry. He explained that he wanted to share his story, but that he was battling cancer and may not live beyond March.

Higgins scheduled a Zoom interview with him the next day. Magnusen died three weeks later.             

“That does encapsulate the urgency for this type of work,” Higgins said.

Applications for institute participants will be available in December.

Higgins will host a symposium on Nov. 30 at which historians Robert Jefferson, Heather Stur, and John Kinder will  discuss his book, "Service Denied: Marginalized Veterans in Modern American History." The conversation will be centered on the experiences of veterans excluded from veteran status and neglected in history.

By Jenny Kincaid Boone