Chris Pendleton · April 26, 2013
Southern Virginia University graduating senior Hyrum Olson took a huge step toward realizing his life-long dream of graduating from a top-tier law school earlier this month when he accepted admission into Stanford Law School.
“I’ve always dreamed of being a lawyer and attending a first-class law school,” said Olson, who will graduate from Southern Virginia on Saturday with a bachelor’s degree in English. “I remember listening to continuing legal education tapes with my dad during long car rides as a child and being fascinated at a very young age.”
Olson’s father, an international tax lawyer and founding partner of Olson Lemons LLP, raised Hyrum and his nine siblings on a bison conservation ranch in Alberta, Canada, with purposeful intent—to teach his children the value of hard work.
“We have more than 4,000 bison and over 60,000 acres of land,” explained Olson. “I was given significant responsibilities as a very young teenager. We worked all day long and finished our home schooling in the evenings. There was always more to do.”
After completing his high school equivalent education and serving a two-year full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Riverside, Calif., Olson chose to attend college at Southern Virginia University; however, he only planned to stay for a semester at that time.
“I was really worried that my uncommon background would hurt me in terms of getting into a top law school,” Olson said. “So I planned on transferring to [Brigham Young University], where two of my older siblings were attending. I thought a larger school would carry more weight with law school admissions committees.”
Olson changed his mind following two semesters at Southern Virginia and forewent his BYU acceptance to stay at the small liberal arts college and major in English. Since that decision, Olson has convinced four more of his siblings to join him at Southern Virginia.
In retrospect, Olson thinks it may have been his decision to stay that actually set him apart from other law-school applicants.
“As I look back, Southern Virginia was a perfect fit,” said Olson. “Personalized and focused on very practical education. I learned to think critically, write persuasively and communicate effectively. I honestly feel that my diverse background made me a unique and desirable applicant.”
In addition to Stanford, Olson was admitted into several other top-50 laws schools, including University of Virginia, Georgetown University, George Washington University, University of California-Los Angeles, Washington and Lee University, Emory University, College of William and Mary and Brigham Young University. Ultimately, he decided to attend Stanford, which is currently tied with Harvard Law School—where Olson’s older brother just finished his second year of law school—for the No. 2 spot on the U.S. News & World Report Top Law Schools rankings.
In part, Olson credited his successful application to the relationships he developed with his Southern Virginia professors over the past four years. In particular, he pointed to his bonds with Associate Professor of English Randall Cluff and Distinguished Professor of Writing and Mass Media Jeffrey Benedict, both of whom Olson considers mentors.
“Professor Cluff was able to write me an unbelievable letter of recommendation because we know each other so well at this point,” Olson said. “As an English major, I have taken six or seven classes from him and I’ve also spent time with him outside of class. We’ve even travelled together on speaking assignments for the Church. He didn’t allow me to get by without strengthening my weaknesses.”
According to Olson, it was his desire to improve perceived personal weaknesses that initially drove him to major in English, as opposed to a more common pre-law preparation. Prior to attending Southern Virginia and “grappling with classic, unpolluted literature,” Olson considered himself a below average reader and writer.
“Before coming here I didn’t read much at all and I hadn’t done much writing,” explained Olson. “I decided to major in English because I wanted to study the classics and learn from the great minds of history through original sources. Doing so has vastly improved my ability to read and write and to think critically.”
Olson also thinks that studying literature has allowed him to “live vicariously in other people’s shoes,” which will “help him to empathize with others and understand their life experiences” throughout his law career and life in general.
However, it was a course in Latin, not English, that Olson feels best prepared him for the notoriously rigorous Law School Admission Test. Olson said that, although it is difficult to quantify exactly how much it helped, his Latin class played a monumental role in preparing him for the LSAT.
“Taking the LSAT is extremely stressful and the key is not only solving a problem, but doing so quickly under intense pressure,” Olson said. “Latin was extremely demanding with no room for excuses. You either performed or you didn’t. Translating what seemed like unreasonable amounts of Latin in a very short time taught me to perform well under stress.”
For Olson, moving to California with his wife, Anneka Himes Olson (’12)—whom he met at Southern Virginia—and 11-month old daughter, Amalia, to attend Stanford Law School this fall feels both surreal and exciting.
“I suppose I call it a ‘dream’ because I never truly believed it could happen,” Olson said. “That dream became more and more real for me during my time at Southern Virginia. It’s always intimidating to think about [attending a top-tier law school], but I know my time here gave me the tools to succeed. If I’m willing to work hard and put in the hours, I can look forward to great opportunities.”