Just over a month ago, Augustana President Stephanie Herseth Sandlin felt torn. She had been sworn into the federal bar and was being considered for a potential spot in the federal judiciary but also felt a strong commitment to her current position at Augustana.
But at 11 a.m. on April 29, as Herseth Sandlin sat in her office, the uncertainty that had tormented her in the previous weeks was gone. It was nowhere to be found. Not in her office, with the morning sun radiating through the window. Not on her face, which, at this time, seemed to express contentment.
It appeared that, in this moment, everything was right for Herseth Sandlin. She had chosen to remain at Augustana rather than to continue being looked at for a federal judgeship. She sent a letter to the White House on April 21 asking that she no longer be considered for a nomination to the federal bench.
“I’m not just at peace with this decision, I’m excited about the decision and the weeks and months and years ahead here,” she said.
It was about four days into spring break that she decided that she would be staying. The break gave Herseth Sandlin, who said she had previously been suffering from the same chronic fatigue that students and staff have been experiencing this school year, some extra time to mull things over and come to a decision before the Board of Trustees meetings on April 23 and 24.
“It gave me some time for real deep thinking and critical analysis and soul searching and praying,” she said.
The decision was a culmination of weeks of reflection and thought. Herseth Sandlin said she had actually shot down the idea during the first few conversations she had on the subject but took another look once she thought about how important it was to be open to opportunities that present themselves.
“If you’re open, it doesn’t mean you’re open and you make a quick decision,” she said. “It means you explore and [see] what you discover about yourself, your current professional opportunities, your personal and family life and what something else could mean.”
However, it was the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol building that truly reawakened Herseth Sandlin’s call toward public service. Previously, she had gone to Georgetown Law School, clerked for two U.S. District Courts and served four terms in the House of Representatives. After seeing the events unfold in Washington, D.C., she took the initial step toward a nomination by being inducted into the federal bar.
At the same time, she said that she also felt strongly about the work she was doing at Augustana. This made it difficult for her to determine which path she felt she should take.
“While the decision in some ways was hard, […] in some ways it became very clear,” Herseth Sandlin said. “That this is where I want to be, that this is the team of people I want to work alongside, that these are young people I want to be with, to learn from — but also to share some of my wisdom or lessons learned along the way as they start their careers after their journey here with us on campus.”
She explained it with great care, like it was a conversation that she’d already had many times. And she had. She’d spoken to several friends and family members: her husband, her parents, her older brother, a few of the close friends she had bonded with over the years — about eight people in total.
“They were just good sounding boards,” she said. “They could sort of hear how I had journeyed through that process, that discernment process. It became clear to me and, I think, clear to them what the best decision was. I’m really appreciative to have those people in my life.”
It was her mother, Joyce, that really helped her through the decision. She said her mother knows her best and pushed her to weigh the regret she might feel, both if she chose to stay or chose to leave.
“There’s always that potential for regret with whatever decision, and I think particularly when you get to a stage in one’s career when you feel like you’re at a pinnacle of influence and responsibility, these decisions get harder, and there could be even deeper regret if you do or don’t do something,” Herseth Sandlin said.
As she pondered this, Herseth Sandlin said she found herself asking another question: Where was her service needed most? While she still felt a sense of duty toward the public, she also had to consider her family and how she could best serve them. As a daughter, wife and mother, she also considered how a change in career would affect those closest to her.
“There are times where I felt selfish in my professional pursuits,” Herseth Sandlin said. “And I think that this allowed me to say, you know, it’s important to be selfless. […] I think I’ve learned that maybe it’s not always about the next [move…], but really where I think I’m being called to be and how I can serve, not only my colleagues and our students here at Augustana, but my extended family.”
She said her decision to stay was actually popular with some of her family members, particularly her son Zachary who she said was “very excited” to hear the news.
However, Herseth Sandlin said she was equally pleased to have support from students and faculty throughout the discernment process. She said some students even came up to her and started conversations upon hearing that she planned to stay.
“They didn’t have to say anything to me, but the fact that so many of them went out of their way to share kind words — just icing on the cake,” she said with a smile.
As she sat behind the piles of papers on her desk with her glasses on, Herseth Sandlin affirmed that this was exactly where she wanted to be. Augustana was where she belonged and, at least for now, this was where she would stay.
She then recounted a conversation that she had with a student a few weeks prior.
Both she and the student happened to see each other in the parking lot, and they talked, first about a conversation the student had with a Lyft driver about Herseth Sandlin’s decision to stay and, then, about a moment from a welcome week ceremony a few years ago.
According to Herseth Sandlin, it’s these random conversations with students that make her feel like she’s in the right place.
“I think we all sometimes need to put a premium on happiness, but those things make me happy,” she said, breaking into a laugh. “Those interactions make me happy.”
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