Sarah Handley-Cousins

Sarah Handley-Cousins

Sarah Handley-Cousins (ΦBK, Wells College) is a clinical assistant professor of history and associate director of the Center for Disability Studies at the University at Buffalo. Her historical research focuses on gender, medicine, disability, and the military in the Civil War era. She is an editor and writer for the blog Nursing Clio, and managing editor and co-producer of DIG: A History Podcast.


As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? 

As a kid, I was very creative-minded, so I used to dream about things like singing on Broadway or becoming a novelist or poet.  

What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?

What a great question. Many classes I took changed my life in different ways – for instance, a Civil War class taught by Michael Groth at Wells College made me realize how much I loved the subject, and the classes I took at Gettysburg College with Allen Guelzo helped me see history as a potential profession. But the class that really opened my eyes was American Studies 101, taught by Linda Lohn at Wells College. It was as if I suddenly saw all of American history and culture with fresh eyes. It completely changed the way I viewed the world. 

What was the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you?

I took a Women’s Studies class at Wells, and once, during a conversation about how many women struggle to balance career and family, I expressed my worries about whether I would be able to have the family I wanted and also the career I wanted. My professor, Ednie Garrison, looked at me and said, “Be selfish, Sarah, because no one else is going to do it for you.” This was really profound. I hear her voice saying those words in my head probably every day. I think it’s advice that many young women need to hear. 

What are your favorite parts about being a historian, writer, and teacher? 

That’s really hard to say – I love so many aspects of my job! One of my favorite parts about teaching is when you see that light-bulb moment in a student’s eyes – the moment they really get it. It’s like you see them come alive in a way. In terms of researching and writing, I love how immersive it is. I think to a certain extent every historian wishes they could go back in time and experience the past. When I’m writing and I’m really in the thick of describing an event or a person’s life, in some small sense, it’s as though I’m finally able to experience what it was really like. My own little time machine!

Why do you think Phi Beta Kappa and a well-rounded liberal arts and sciences education are important in today’s society? 

I believe that a liberal arts education, and organizations like Phi Beta Kappa that are dedicated to advocating for it, are absolutely essential. We see news stories nearly every day that demonstrate how critical it is to understand the past, for example - stories about people wearing blackface or rationalizing Nazi policies. Without knowing the history of Jim Crow or Nazi atrocities, those things might seem harmless – but they’re not. Without well-rounded educations, ones that include the humanities, we’re unable to understand the implications or contexts of the things happening around us. 

What advice do you have for young Phi Beta Kappa members?

Try lots of things! Take classes outside of your major or field, join clubs, go on trips, learn from people who have different cultures and experiences than you. Not only will you have a lot of fun, you’ll become a well-rounded individual. 

Are you working on any upcoming projects or books that you’re excited about?

Yes! My first book, Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North, is coming out in July. I’m also continuing work on a history podcast called Dig: A History Podcast, which is just so much fun. 

What is your favorite cultural excursion or experience in your town?

Buffalo is such a fun place to live – I feel like you can experience a little bit of everything here -- rural farms, urban hangouts, waterfront activities and fantastic theater all in the same place. One of my favorite things to do in the summer is go on a Buffalo River History Tour, which is a little boat tour that lets you see the old grain elevators up close. It’s a fascinating peak into Buffalo’s past.