SIOUX FALLS — Breaking barriers isn't anything new for Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.
At 46, the former congresswoman and current Augustana University president is the youngest of 10 inductees to the South Dakota Hall of Fame this year. And Herseth Sandlin, who was the first woman to represent her state in the U.S. House of Representatives, said her ability to break through that glass ceiling, coupled with a strong family tradition of public service, was likely what spearheaded her nomination to the state Hall of Fame at a young age.
"I think it has a lot more to do with my family's tradition, and by inducting me, knowing of the influence of grandparents and a dad who also served and made contributions, that it's a way to recognize my whole family," Herseth Sandlin said last month.
Sitting in her new office at Augustana University, Herseth Sandlin reminisced on a long list of legislative accomplishments she's proud to have achieved over the course of four terms in Congress, but the conversation consistently returned to her core tenets of continuing a family legacy and helping to clear a path for women in politics in South Dakota.
When she was elected to Congress in 2004, Herseth Sandlin became the youngest women serving in the House at the time. As a 33-year-old woman on her way to the U.S. Capitol, Herseth Sandlin didn't fit the mold established by her predecessors in South Dakota.
Looking back at her time in Congress, the Democratic former U.S. Representative said her ability to break the mold likely played a role in her induction into the S.D. Hall of Fame this week.
As the first women elected to that specific statewide office, she said her time in Congress may have been viewed by those who nominated her as "the political socialization of women, in particular younger women, on encouraging public service, enhancing confidence, emboldening, empowering."
And those beliefs weren't lost on Marcia and David Chicoine, the former first lady and president of South Dakota State University who nominated Herseth Sandlin for the honor.
"Her high performance, commitment to excellence and many accomplishments as an elected official and a corporate officer serves as a role model for other South Dakotans, especially young women," the Chicoine nomination letter said.
Continuing a family legacy
In a life filled with firsts, Herseth Sandlin will be the the first to bear the Herseth name in the South Dakota Hall of Fame, a fact which isn't lost on her.
That fact was reiterated by Ted Muenster, the University of South Dakota Foundation president emeritus who seconded her nomination.
"Following in her grandparents' example as governor, secretary of state and legislative service, Stephanie's four terms as a U.S. Representative added significantly to her family's legacy of public service," Muenster wrote.
The Herseth family tradition kicked off in Houghton, the birthplace of Gov. Ralph Herseth. Ralph Herseth, Herseth Sandlin's grandfather, served as governor for two years. He was the lone Democrat to hold the office amid nine Republicans between 1937 and 1979.
Herseth Sandlin's father, Lars Herseth, then carried the family's political torch as a state legislator over the course of three decades. He was then succeeded by Stephanie, the first in the family to represent the state in Washington, D.C. rather than Pierre.
And while many point to her grandfather and father when referencing the family legacy, Herseth Sandlin said her connection with her grandmother played a significant role in ushering in a new generation of public servants in the family.
"It was always daughter and granddaughter of Lars and Ralph," Herseth Sandlin said about how she was referred to when she initially ran for office. "My grandma Lorna always got a little bit of short shrift."
She said her grandmother was the first in the family to run for office, even before she became a part of the Herseth family. Then known as Lorna Buntrock, she won an election to become superintendent of Brown County schools.
"And she was a big influence on me, and I've always kind of felt like, 'You know, I want grandma to get her due,' " Herseth Sandlin said.
Of her nearly seven years in Congress, one legislative achievement stands out above the rest for Herseth Sandlin.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill expanded the GI Bill eligibility for education assistance to members of the National Guard, including transferability provisions for spouses or children. And Herseth Sandlin was proud of the bill's ability "to have an impact over a number of lifetimes for people in South Dakota."
"So I feel particularly good about the lasting impact that can have, and that it was very bipartisan," she said.
She was also proud to have participated in crafting the 2008 farm bill, her work on the Tribal Law and Order and the 2005 and 2007 revisions to the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), a policy which promotes the use of biofuels.
Herseth Sandlin said the updates to the RFS gave farmers a way to diversify and provided a safety net when commodity prices were low. And she's glad Jeff Broin, founder and CEO of POET, will be inducted alongside her as part of the 2017 class.
"And I'm so thrilled that Jeff Broin is being recognized and I'm in his class, because he's a visionary in that industry," she said.
A commitment to South Dakota
Following a four-term run in Congress, after a narrow defeat by U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, Herseth Sandlin would ultimately find her way back to South Dakota.
In 2012, she took a post as general counsel and vice president of corporate development at precision agriculture manufacturer Raven Industries in Sioux Falls.
After laying the groundwork for a career in higher education in her 20s, she found herself returning back to that path two decades later.
Herseth Sandlin's tenure at Raven Industries came to an end this year when an opportunity arose to join the administration of Sioux Falls-based Augustana University. And though it took two decades to find her way back to higher education, Herseth Sandlin said her life experiences put her in a better position for the job.
"Now having this opportunity at Augustana is like coming full circle, but the intervening years prepared me far better to be a member of the administration than a member of the faculty," Herseth Sandlin said.
Although he wrote his nomination letter in support of Herseth Sandlin prior to the Augustana announcement, Rapid City-based attorney Brian D. Hagg was impressed with her commitment to South Dakota.
"To many of us, this is a most important part of her contribution in that this is the very message we want to impact to our young people, that is to stay in South Dakota and contribute to the future of our State," wrote Hagg, a lifelong Republican and former chair of the Pennington County Republican Party.
Soon to hold the title of South Dakota Hall of Fame member, Herseth Sandlin was encouraged to embark on her next chapter in a long history of public service.
"I felt it was an opportunity to serve, but in a different way," Herseth Sandlin said.