Whether advocating for a skate park or organizing flood relief efforts in Cedar Rapids, a law student finds his place in public interest work.
In a way, Rob Sand owes it all to skateboarding.
His interest in public service, his desire to help others and do work that improves his community – it all started with a project to build a skate park in his hometown.
“In high school I was a skateboarder, and it was very frustrating trying to skate in Decorah,” says Sand, now a law student at The University of Iowa. “My friends and I kept getting kicked out of spots where we liked to skate. I didn’t see any reason why it had to be so hard to find a place to skate. So I spent two years working to get a public skate park built.”
And although Sand had stopped skating, graduated high school, and left town by the time the park he lobbied so hard for was complete, the experience left a lasting impression.
“I developed a purpose in life, and that’s helped make all my other decisions really easy,” says Sand. “That skate park was something good for the whole city of Decorah. The park where it was built started getting more use, other people asked for other improvements, and now, seven years later, there’s also a shelter and a paved trail there. It’s neat to see the ripple effects of that one project. It’s really an affirmation of the importance of public interest work.”
The experience inspired Sand to delve deeper in politics. As an undergraduate at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, he studied and presented a paper on how to increase political participation, and was awarded the school’s Royce Fellowship to study agricultural policy and conservation issues in Iowa. In 2005 he was named a Truman Scholar.
To earn money while in school, Sand worked part time as a model with IMG Models, an international model management firm that brought him jobs with Prada, Fendi, and other designers. He traveled to Milan and Paris, worked on runways, and appeared in Italian Vogue, Details, and British GQ.
He enjoyed traveling and working with well-known photographers, but fashion took up a lot of time, and it wasn’t really where his heart was, so Sand quit after he was awarded the Royce Fellowship so that he could concentrate more fully on his research project.
After graduating with a degree in politics in 2005, he moved back to Iowa and spent a year working in politics and nonprofits, then two months volunteering with Habitat for Humanity’s post-Hurricane Katrina Gulf Coast Recovery Program in New Orleans.
"Originally I was just going to volunteer in New Orleans for a week, but then I got down there and saw that that city had more character than any other place I’ve been. So I decided to crash on a friend’s couch and keep working,” he says. “I liked getting in there and getting involved. You really got to see the results of the work that you’d done."
Sand began studying law at The University of Iowa in fall 2007, and returned to New Orleans the following spring during the law school’s annual spring break service project trip. Several months later, he found himself in recovery mode once again after the Cedar River flooded 1,300 city blocks—9.2 square miles—of Cedar Rapids, about 30 miles north of Iowa City in June 2008.
Sand had spent time in Cedar Rapids visiting his grandmother and volunteering for President Barack Obama’s campaign before the 2008 caucuses.
“It was difficult to see houses I’d been to, the restaurant where I stopped for lunch, just totally destroyed,” he says.
He wanted to help. So Sand, who’s also the copresident of the Iowa Student Bar Association, worked with the law school’s Dean of Civic Engagement, Linda McGuire, and a handful of student leaders to organize a service challenge for students at the College of Law.
“In law school it’s easy to get your head stuck in your books and kind of forget about what’s going on in the outside world,” Sand says. “But we’re a public university, funded by tax dollars, and we wanted to give something back.”
They rallied students to give up their Saturdays and volunteer 900 hours to flood recovery efforts during the fall 2008 semester—no small feat.
“Most law students are working seven days a week. To convince them to give up a whole day is a pretty difficult thing to do,” Sand says. “We did all sorts of things to raise awareness, like sent out e-mails and had a panel of people from Cedar Rapids come talk about the effects of the flood and the recovery efforts there.”
The group also organized a spring break flood recovery service project, and several Saturday work days during the rest of the semester. Sand hopes to do more volunteer work this summer while he’s in Cedar Rapids working as a summer associate at Simmons Perrine Moyer Bergman, one of Iowa’s largest law firms.
Although Sand is still exploring what area of law he’d like to practice, he knows one thing for certain: He wants to continue working to make his community a better place.
“I want to be in a position where I feel like I’m working to help other people,” he says. “I chose to pursue a law degree because it’s a degree that can empower you to create change. I hope it will help me do a better job of realizing ideas, not just advocating them.”
Story by Anne Kapler; photo by Kirk Murray.
June 15, 2009