When Rapid City native Connor Haaland started his undergraduate work at South Dakota State University in fall 2015, law school was not part of the plan. The Rapid City Stevens graduate came to run track and cross country for the Jackrabbits and become a pharmacist.
“I quickly learned I had no passion for chemistry and biology, but I was loving Spanish,” Haaland said, recalling his first semester. He switched his majors to Spanish and global studies, took some honors courses and eventually added minors in French and economics.
This fall, he will be the only Harvard Law School student who did his undergraduate work in South Dakota. Haaland is the son of the late Mikal Haaland and of Kimberly Stephens-Knowlton of Rapid City.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in May 2019, Haaland moved to the Washington, D.C., area, first as an intern for the Cato Institute and then as a research assistant for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. At the Cato Institute, he worked on compiling a database of American citizens wrongfully detained or deported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “Right now, I’m working on data privacy and policies for emerging technologies, such as drones and artificial intelligence,” Haaland said.
When he received the call that he had been accepted at Harvard Law School, Haaland said, “It was surreal, a pure adrenaline rush, like an athlete winning titles, times 10. It was one of the most incredible moments of my life.”
Finding passion for law
During his sophomore year at State, Haaland spent spring break working as a legal assistant at one of the largest family detention centers, helping monolingual people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador seek asylum in the United States. “It was one of the most emotional and saddening experiences of my life,” he said, remembering the stories asylum seekers shared with him in Dilley, Texas.
However, he also saw “what the attorneys and staff can do for them, how much peace even the small amount of knowledge brought asylum seekers was really inspiring. Law is a powerful vehicle to do a lot of good and that is the most exciting thing about it for me.”
That weeklong experience inspired him to set his sights on law school.
Putting in the hours
“The way the law school admission works is pretty much numbers-driven,” Haaland said. “If you do well on the LSAT and have a high GPA, you have a shot at some of the top schools.” He knew his GPA at SDSU put him in a competitive position.
“I knew I could work hard enough and was willing to put in the time to prepare for the exam,” Haaland said, estimating that he studied 500 hours over the course of a year before taking the LSAT. The more than four-hour exam has sections on reading comprehension, analytical and logical reasoning, as well as a prompted writing section.
“I got a good score, but by no means an auto-admit score,” said Haaland. However, he feels his personal statement in which he wrote about his experience with the legal system in Texas and the fact that he is from South Dakota worked in his favor. He also acknowledged the support and encouragement he received from SDSU faculty.
Garnering faculty praise
Associate professor of Spanish Christine Garst-Santos, director of the School of American and Global Studies, said, “Connor’s ability to combine his academic work with his commitment to public service has been consistently impressive and rare for an undergraduate student.”
Professor Molly Krueger Enz, who teaches French and global studies courses, said, “I am continually impressed by Connor’s work ethic and eagerness to achieve his goals regardless of the challenge.”
She recalled an honors independent study course in which Haaland wrote a research paper analyzing the disastrous impact of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and why the country has struggled so much to recover. The paper earned him the Schultz-Werth research award, which recognizes undergraduates for their original, independent scholarly work.
Furthermore, Haaland presented his research paper in French at the Pan-Lingua Undergraduate Conference on Languages and Cultures at Minnesota State University, Mankato and then in English at SDSU’s Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity Day.
“Connor has made extraordinary contributions to several communities. He is resilient and has made a positive impact on the world around him, demonstrating grit in the face of adversity,” said Rebecca Bott-Knutson, dean of the Van D. and Barbara B. Fishback Honors College.
After his experience with asylum seekers in Texas, Haaland became a student leader in the Center for New Americans and American Culture, which is housed in the School of American and Global Studies. The center conducts research on issues related to immigration, provides outreach to newcomers to South Dakota and fosters intercultural understanding. As a work-study student, he created a resource bank to help humanities students find internships, fellowships and scholarships as well as a database of alumni willing to mentor students.
“In my 20 years of teaching, I have never had a student so focused on professional and career development opportunities,” Garst-Santos said.
As Haaland looks forward to this fall, he also plans to accept an invitation from the dean of admission, Kristi Jobson, to “get together and see how we can get more South Dakotans at Harvard Law School.”