This year, first-year CIPA Fellow Amanda Robinson applied for and was awarded the opportunity to travel to Washington DC to participate in Advocacy Day. Here, Amanda recounts the experience and discusses the value of taking opportunities to engage and share opinions and ideas with others.
This past spring break, I had the opportunity to attend Cornell’s Advocacy Day for Graduate Students. I had applied to participate earlier in the semester when I learned that Cornell was specifically looking for students representing a set of states including my home state of Maine. I was one of about 20 students that came from a variety of PhD and Master’s programs, although most students had a more scientific background.
This year, the topic that we were focusing on was graduate student loans. Prior to heading to Washington D.C., the group met and received a packet of information that outlined Cornell’s positions on graduate student loans, federal funding for education, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and other topics related to education and universities. This information helped guide our preparation as we researched the positions of the Congressional members that we would be meeting with.
Once we were in Washington D.C., we were divided into smaller groups and received an itinerary of congressional members or staffers for the day. Essentially, we were meeting with a different office every half hour from 9:30 AM to 4:00 PM. It was a very packed day, but also a rewarding and informative experience.
For me, one of the major highlights of the trip occurred at the beginning of Advocacy Day. The first stop was the office of Senator King, who is an Independent Senator from from my home state of Maine. I could not have asked for a better start to the day. We attended his Constituent Coffee, where a variety of us had the opportunity to discuss positions with the Senator and his staff. I shared my thoughts on graduate student loans with the Senator, then had the opportunity to take my picture with him.
Later in the day, we also had the opportunity to meet with Representative Luis Gutierrez, who is the Representative from the 4th Congressional District of Illinois. He had a very candid half-hour conversation with us all about the education system and other current political events; this was a much longer meeting than many of the others.
This was my first experience speaking directly with Congressional members and their staff to advocate for issues that I care about. It is definitely an opportunity that I encourage other students to pursue. I had worked on campaigns before and I continue to call my representatives when an issue I am passionate about arises, but none of that really compares to the chance to speak with your representatives in person.
At the Capitol, it was obvious that constituents, organizations, and companies were advocating for positions on a wide-range of topics. It was somewhat startling to think of just how many different issues get brought up every single day. I think sometimes people believe that politicians have their agenda, that their minds are already made up, and that every conversation you have with them will be a fight to prove your point. However, from the interactions my fellow students and I had on the Hill, it was plain to see just how open and eager for information the various representatives were. Granted, we were students and our topic was not particularly controversial, but I found all the offices that we visited were welcoming and willing to engage with us on the conversation of graduate student loans.
The most important take-away I have from this phenomenal experience is to not be afraid to speak your mind. Your opinion matters and your representatives are there to represent you, but they do not know what matters most to you if you do not speak up. Cornell University, and the CIPA Program, provide so many opportunities to share your passions and develop expertise in what matters most to you. This chance to advocate to Congressional members on behalf of an issue I care about is just one of many ways!