Killian McDonald received the prestigious Knight-Hennessy Scholarship at Stanford.

Killian McDonald earned her bachelor’s degree in political science and women’s leadership at Clemson University. Image Credit: Courtesy of Stanford University

Killian McDonald, a 2018 graduate of Clemson University, was awarded a prestigious Knight-Hennessy Scholarship, which will fully fund the cost of attending Stanford University Law School.

A former Undergraduate Student Government president, McDonald earned her bachelor’s degree with a double major in political science and women’s leadership at Clemson.

McDonald was one of 76 students selected from thousands of applicants worldwide to receive the Knight-Hennessy scholarship, which Stanford University created to prepare a new generation of leaders dedicated to public service.

“It’s like a dream come true,” McDonald said. “It’s beyond amazing.”

McDonald, 24, will begin her three-year law program at Stanford in August with the hope of eventually working as a civil rights attorney.

“I really want to come back home and make a difference in South Carolina,” said McDonald, a Columbia native. “I really care about social justice issues in the South. This scholarship is geared toward students who want to be leaders and make a difference.”

McDonald earned the scholarship after an extensive application process that included essays, writing samples, a video presentation and a January interview on campus in Palo Alto, California, where she had the chance to meet other applicants.

“I got to know some of the most brilliant students I’ve ever met, and they’re all striving to serve their communities through public service,” McDonald said.

On top of everything else in the selection process, McDonald first had to earn admission to Stanford Law School, one of the most exclusive law schools in the nation.

Preparing young leaders

The Knight-Hennessy Scholars program aims to prepare young leaders with the “deep academic foundation and broad skill set needed to develop creative solutions for the world’s most complex challenges,” according to Stanford University.

The scholarships support students pursuing graduate degrees in law, medicine, business and many other disciplines. Knight-Hennessy Scholars build upon their graduate programs with leadership training, mentorship and learning across multiple disciplines.

McDonald is one of only 10 first-year Stanford law students who earned the scholarship.

Established in 2016, the Knight-Hennessy Scholarship pays for tuition, housing, food, books and even travel and project expenses. The scholarship is particularly valuable for students who want to work in the nonprofit sector, McDonald said.

“Civil rights law is not the type of law where someone can make a lot of money,” McDonald said. “I was really worried about paying for law school. This scholarship allows me to pursue my dream right out of law school.”

Pursuing a dream

Since graduating from Clemson, McDonald has actively pursued her interest in public policy. She completed an internship at the Center for Reproductive Rights and worked at the Feminist Majority Foundation, both in Washington, D.C.

McDonald expected to attend graduate school but had not always planned to become a lawyer. After her internship at the Center for Reproductive Rights, she realized the possibility of working through the court system to achieve positive change.

“It was the first time I saw people who cared about the same issues as I do,” McDonald said. “The Center for Reproductive Rights was mostly women-led, doing a lot of important legal work. It was the first time I could see myself doing this.”

More recently, McDonald served as deputy finance director on Adair Boroughs’ congressional campaign. Boroughs, a Democrat, is running against incumbent Republican Joe Wilson to represent South Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Boroughs, like McDonald, was awarded a Truman Scholarship during her junior year of college. After graduating from Furman University in 2002, Boroughs went on to attend Stanford Law School.

McDonald was only the second student in Clemson University history to earn a Truman Scholarship, a highly competitive award for students interested in public-service leadership. In 2020, Ashni Bhojwani became the University’s third Truman Scholar.

McDonald came to Clemson as a National Scholar in 2014. As a senior, she won top honors from both of her Colleges, the Blue Key Academic and Leadership Award in the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities and the Dean’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences.

In addition to winning numerous other awards at Clemson, McDonald was a leader of the Reclaim and Rename student group that advocated for removing the name of John C. Calhoun from the honors college. The Clemson Board of Trustees approved that measure in a unanimous vote on June 12, 2020.

McDonald credits Clemson with much of her success.

“I think Clemson helped me find this great community of people, faculty and students, who challenged me and encouraged me to think bigger,” McDonald said. “I would not be where I am today without their constant support.”

McDonald said when she learned she had won the Knight-Hennessy, she first called her parents. Her next calls were to two professors “who really helped me get there,” Jeff Fine, associate professor of political science, and Sarah Winslow, associate director of the Clemson University Honors College.

“The idea of a Clemson Family is really true,” McDonald said. “They’ll always be there to support you.”

The Knight-Hennessy Scholarship is named after Stanford alumnus Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike Inc., who contributed $400 million to fund the scholarship program, and John Hennessy, Stanford’s president from 2000-16. With a total endowment of $750 million, the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program is the largest fully endowed scholarship program in the world.