Kristi Noem on Completing Her College Degree

The Republican congresswoman from South Dakota dropped out of college two decades ago. Now she’s finally getting her diploma
Illustration by Jimmy Turrell

I started college [in 1990] and was pursuing an education degree when my dad was killed in an accident on our farm. That turned our lives upside down. I had to discontinue my education. It was a very difficult decision, but I knew that someone needed to carry on in my dad’s place. The only thing that made me feel better at that time was doing the things I used to do with my dad. Working on the farm with the cattle was my own sort of grief counseling. I immediately became engulfed in a farming operation and a ranching operation.

In 2008 my sister said, “I’m surprised you never went back.” At that point an education wasn’t going to be critical for my career, but I felt as though completing my degree at South Dakota State was a testimony to what kind of person I was. I wanted to make a good example for my kids. I took some classes on campus while I was serving in the state legislature. After I was elected to Congress [in 2010], a lot of my homework was done on airplanes and in airports and late at night. I switched majors to a political science degree. When we were debating the debt ceiling last year in Congress, I was taking a course that was covering topics such as the financial crises of several European countries. It was very interesting to be taking that course while I was serving and having those same kinds of conversations in Congress.

In the summertime, I would often take accelerated courses. That was the most difficult because the time frame was so crunched, and I had to take care of three kids, be a wife, have a business, and also serve in Congress. And I was dedicated to getting good grades, too. It meant the most to me when my kids were there on graduation day [in May]. My daughter graduated from high school the following weekend, so we had a party at our ranch.

I feel like I have a more rounded perspective on some issues now. Regarding student loans, I don’t think anyone wants to see interest rates on our struggling young people double, but taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook either. I voted to extend the interest rate cuts and to pay for it by making cuts in the president’s health-care law. Still, this remains a short-term fix to a problem that needs a long-term solution. — As told to Keenan Mayo 

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