The graduate: Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., gets her college degree

(CBS News) While it's common for members of Congress to speak at a graduation, they don't usually earn a degree in political science on the same day. Saturday, 40-year-old Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., did just that and graduated from South Dakota State University.

Elected in 2010 as the GOP took control of the House, Noem's considered a rising star in the Republican Party.

But her story begins 1,500 miles outside of Washington back home on the family ranch, where this farm girl, mother of three, business owner and politician learned to multi-task at the highest level.

Despite her success, Noem never finished college. She dropped out at age 22 after her father was killed in a tragic farming accident.

"It turned our whole lives upside down. He was the guy who could do anything," Noem said. "I remember going to bed that night thinking, 'I have no idea what tomorrow looks like because he's not here.'"

She left school to help run the family business but eventually got the bug for politics and became a state lawmaker in 2006. Two years later, Noem started taking classes again most of them online. By the time she got to Washington 92 percent of her colleagues in the House and all but one Senator had college degrees.

"That was one thing about coming here to Washington, D.C. - I never felt insecure about my education," Noem said. I felt like I had been through the school of hard knocks."

Noem's oldest daughter Kassidy, will graduate from high school later this week.

If Noem's father could see her today? "I think he'd think I was crazy," she laughed and said. "Because today I'm serving in Congress and that's something that I never really talked about doing before. You know, he was the one who raised us to always see an opportunity and to say 'yes.'"

That attitude has also helped her navigate the bitter politics on Capitol Hill. When she voted to raise the debt ceiling in August, Noem was blasted by some in the Tea Party prompting a possible primary challenge from the right. From the left, Democrats hoping to foil her re-election, think Matt Varilek has a chance to beat her in November.

But Noem says she's laser-focused. "This is life. This is real life," Noem said. "What happens here in Washington, D.C. isn't real life. This is policy and working to get things done. But then I go home to the reason why I get out of bed every day."

It's the same reason she went back to school. It's something she says her father would have been proud of.

  • Whit Johnson

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