Q&A: Catching up with Heidi Heitkamp, UND honorary degree recipient

First U.S. Senator from North Dakota talks about her beloved alma mater

Former U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp received an honorary degree during this year’s commencement proceedings. She served as the first female U.S. Senator from North Dakota. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

If North Dakota maintained an official roster of household names with national repute, Heidi Heitkamp would undoubtedly be on it.

A quick Google search of the former U.S. Senator pulls her profiles on Time and NPR and CNBC, among other major media outlets. The latter welcomed Heitkamp as a contributor upon her departure from Capitol Hill after the 2018 midterm elections.

For the network, Heitkamp has penned pieces on retirement obstacles, tax burdens and rural America. After all, it is rural America and North Dakota, more specifically, that she has striven to better throughout her prolific career.

That verve of hers is, perhaps, easy to grasp.

Heitkamp is a girl of humble beginnings who grew up to be the first woman from North Dakota to serve in the country’s Senate.

Born in the family of a school cook and a janitor, the middle of seven children, Heitkamp knew hard work – not only through her parents but also through her own experiences.

As a teenager, she worked construction, an industry her father dabbled in as well. As a student at the University of North Dakota, she held odd jobs, including a cleanup gig with Bridgeman Creamery.

Heitkamp arrived at UND in 1973, a place that loomed “big” and “exotic” for the girl and her parents from small-town Mantador, she said in a 2012 article in the Grand Forks Herald.

In her last two years here, Heitkamp interned in Washington, D.C. and later in Bismarck where her passion for national and local politics budded.

After law school in Oregon, Heitkamp returned to her home state, where her public service career unfolded with such coveted roles as the North Dakota’s tax commissioner and later attorney general.

A run for the governorship in 2000 tapered when a breast cancer diagnosis befell Heitkamp, who, nonetheless, remained in the race, exhibiting a rare kind of tenacity.

A little over a decade later, she succeeded her mentor Kent Conrad in the U.S. Senate, where she focused on curbing human trafficking, stimulating energy development, preventing workplace discrimination and promoting retirement security, among other legislative attainments.

Throughout the years, though, Heitkamp did not lose her connection to her alma mater, which she has frequently visited for large-scale events as well as for intimate gatherings of student organizations.

The last time Heitkamp was on campus, in early May, she crossed the commencement stage once again, over 40 years after her own graduation. This time, she received an honorary degree, alongside aviation legend Clay Lacy and Hollywood actor Josh Duhamel.

A week after the occasion, UND Today connected with Heitkamp over e-mail to learn more about her time here and her abiding bond to UND.

At a dinner reception the evening before Commencement Day on May 11, Hollywood actor Josh Duhamel and Heidi Heitkamp, both UND honorary degree recipients this spring, snapped a photo together. Photo by Shawna Shill/UND Today.

You have just received an honorary degree from UND. How does that make you feel?

UND Proud.  I could never have imagined when I graduated from UND that I would be on a graduation stage receiving an honorary degree.  So much of what I have been able to achieve is the result of the quality education that I received at UND.

What was it like to be at commencement this past weekend?

It was great fun. Watching so many future leaders walk across the graduation stage and seeing the pride in the faces of their families made me feel so optimistic for the future of our state and the country.

You obtained a bachelor’s degree from UND. Why UND?

I wanted to pursue a career in law, and I believed that UND’s programs in Philosophy, History and Political Science provided the best preparation for law school. 

What was it like attending UND? Do you have any memorable stories from your time at the University that have stayed with you throughout the years?

I have many great memories, most of which I would not expose in this article. I, like most UND graduates, believe the lasting benefits of going to UND is the people you meet. For me the most important contribution UND made to my life is I met my husband, Darwin Lange at UND.

What was your favorite class at UND?

My favorite class was Political Thought with Don Poochigian. I also have great memories of History classes with Glenn Smith, and Political Science classes with Lloyd Omdahl and Steve Markovich.    

During commencement, Heidi Heitkamp addressed graduating students, wishing them luck in the life journey ahead. Photo by Shawna Shill/UND Today.

You have had an extensive career and throughout it you have kept connected to your alma mater. Why is it important for you to keep supporting UND?

My siblings and I are first generation college graduates. I have never forgotten what the State of North Dakota and UND did for my family and I know there are so many future students who will benefit the way I have from a UND education.

What do you miss the most about your time being a UND student?

I was a student a long time ago. I miss the daily contact with my friends, but I have no desire to go back to college.

What advice would you give to UND students?

You are at UND to study and learn. The most important skill you can have in the new economy is the ability to reason. Take a philosophy or religion course. Take an art course. Take classes that challenge you. In evaluating the success of your college experience, your grade point average is not nearly as important as what you learn about yourself.

What inspires you?

The youth of America inspires me.

What makes you most proud?

I am proud of my family’s love for each other and our collective commitment to service. I credit my parents and my church for raising me to believe that we have duty to each other and a responsibility to make the place where we live a better place tomorrow than it is today.

What existential question you wished you knew the answer to?

Why are people mean to each other?