‘I was able to feel like I was making an impact’

Cara Mund hopes to leverage tenacity gained as an advocate — and 2018 Miss America — to influence public policy

COVID-19 had few benefits, but for Cara Mund ’22 the pandemic offered an unexpected upside. Mund, a Brown University alumna, had just transferred to Harvard Law after her first year in law school when the pandemic shut down in-person instruction. But while online learning meant joining her class remotely — a potentially awkward transition — Mund recalled the camaraderie the crisis evoked. “Coming into a brand-new school and trying to meet the other transfers was a unique experience, but we were all going through it together,” she said.

Learning remotely from her home in North Dakota would also offer the new Harvard Law student a surprise advantage. Unlike much of the country, Mund’s home state did not shut down its court system during the pandemic. In addition, while Massachusetts law mandates that only third-year law students can act as student attorneys, North Dakota allows second-year law students to do so as well. Mund saw an opportunity. “I thought, well, if I’m going to be getting a fully remote education, if I can supplement it with some in-person experience, I will.”

With permission from Lecturer John J. Corrigan ’87, Mund enrolled in Harvard Law School’s Criminal Prosecution Clinic, which is typically only open to third-year students. Through the program, Mund was able to work in a limited capacity as a student attorney in the Morton County State’s Attorney’s Office.

“We had some hearings over Zoom, but a lot was happening in person,” she recalled. The small size of the office brought some additional advantages as well. “I really had substantive opportunities. Day two, I had the chance to be in front of a judge,” recalled Mund. Citing the mentoring she received from Harvard Law and the small size of the North Dakota attorney’s office, Mund said, “I was able to feel like I was making an impact in the state of North Dakota.”

“It was an incredible opportunity to not only get that clinical experience but also to build advocacy skills,” she said. “I’m fortunate that both my health and North Dakota allowed me to have that experience. It really set me up coming to Cambridge as a 3L to have that background.”

Mund’s journey to law school was already an unusual one. A competitive choreographer and dancer — during high school she trained with the Rockettes — Mund won the 2018 Miss America competition. She was the first, and only, Miss America from North Dakota. Prior to 2018, North Dakota had never even made the top five. Her gown is now on exhibit at North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum.

“It truly opened doors for me,” she said, offering her opportunities to serve others. In her national role, she was the National Goodwill Ambassador for the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, working closely with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. She also supported troops both domestic and abroad with the United Service Organizations.

She said that while the organization is incredible, the experience, however, “was not rainbows and butterflies.” The competition had been held in September 2017 and in December, the organization changed management.

“At the time it just seemed like this was going to move the organization in the right direction,” she recalled. “But the first thing the new CEO said to me was ‘Wow, you’re a lot smarter than I thought.’” Mund says that a trend of belittling and harassment followed, and she responded with a letter critiquing the organization, which she had previously praised as the largest provider of scholarships for women. Because the terms of her title mandated that all her public communications go through the organization, she was forced to stay silent and rely on her lawyer.

The very public battle, “made me a stronger woman,” said Mund. It also “made me realize the value of a pro bono lawyer, an advocate who had my back,” she added. That struggle wasn’t what started her on the path to law school: She names an aunt and uncle who were both judges as early influences. However, she says “it was instrumental in me knowing what kind of lawyer I want to be.”

“That made me realize the impact of my voice,” said Mund, who has gone on to be an international motivational speaker. “Everything built off of the Miss America experience,” she said. “It prepped me to be the best oral advocate that I can be, to think well on my feet, and to know the importance of networking and building relationships.”

It also cemented her determination to be involved in public service. “I had incredible opportunities as a 23- and 24-year-old, but now I need to take those opportunities and translate them into continuing to impact other people, continuing to do good in the world, and continuing to shatter barriers.”

To do so, Mund is looking ahead to politics. “I’ve said for a very long time, even when I was competing at Miss America, that I wanted to run for office, especially back in North Dakota where there’s not as much female representation. We’ve never had a female member of the U.S. House of Representatives. We’ve never had a female governor.”

To round out her law school experience, this year Mund has become involved with the Criminal Justice Institute, working with its faculty deputy director Professor Dehlia Umunna.

“Cara Mund is an outstanding CJI student,” said Umunna. Noting that Mund “had one of the highest caseloads this year,” Umunna explained that, “her zealous advocacy and exemplary work ethic were on full display as she represented her clients. Ms. Mund had the opportunity to represent her client before the Appeals Court on April 14. Less than two weeks later, she tried a case in Roxbury District Court on behalf of a different client, where the jury reached a ‘not guilty’ verdict in less than twenty minutes. Her resilience and tenacity — and compassion for her clients — are refreshing and highlight the best practices expected of those who advocate on behalf of marginalized demographics.”

With such defense work, she has “completely flipped sides,” Mund said: “That goes to how I want to eventually be in politics, realizing that there are two — or even more — viewpoints.”

Winning Miss America, Mund said, really was the moment she “shattered barriers,” and proved that with hard work and determination, anything is possible. She hopes her legal education will take that experience to the next level.

“I would love to use my legal education to impact policy either at the state level or at the national level,” she said. “I want people to know me as Cara, not as Miss America.”