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Engaging Student Governments in Public Policy Efforts

Civic Engagement Policy and Advocacy Public Policy Division Student Government Mid-Level Senior Level
January 29, 2020

The year is 2005, and I have just been elected to serve as the 2005-2006 Student Body President at my alma mater. I was excited and nervous as I was preparing for my year of service to my peers while representing their interests at the local and state levels. In retrospect, I had no idea of how my work would be integral to the institution’s public policy efforts at the local, state, and even national levels. Now, as I have the opportunity to sit back and reflect as a student body president-turned-higher education administrator, I realize the power and opportunities of engaging our student leaders, particularly our student governments, in the work of public policy efforts.

I thought I was prepared to take on the tasks of being a student body president for my student government association. I knew the inner workings and structures of the student government association. I was prepared to lead my team of student senators in listening to our student constituencies to understand their needs and concerns. But was I truly prepared to be engaged in what would become public policy work, i.e., advocating for higher education and college students (of both my campus and the system) at the state level as well as local levels (city and county)? Ready or not, I quickly immersed myself and my student government staff (primarily my student government legislative affairs director) in public policy work.

Now, as a student government advisor myself and a student affairs administrator, I think about how we are preparing our outstanding student leaders to be engaged in public policy work.

  • Onboarding: How do we help orient and onboard our student government leaders to understand the myriad of structures that will influence policy? One cannot always assume that a student government leader comes from a political science area of study. I was not a political science major when I became student body president so I began a quick study to understand the state legislative processes as well as how the state legislature interacts with the state system’s higher education governing board. As student government leaders begin their terms of service, student government advisors should provide the resources and intentional conversations to help these student leaders understand the intersections to provide a solid grounding for future public policy work.
  • Updating: How do we make sure that our student government leaders remain aware of public policy initiatives that may influence their lives and/or the lives of college students more broadly at multiple levels? As a former student body president, I was fortunate to have an outstanding student government legislative affairs director who had a passion for keeping a pulse on what was happening at the city hall, at the state capitol, and in Washington, D.C. However, that may not always be the case. How do we, as student government advisors, work to keep our students informed? A great resource at our fingertips is the work of the NASPA Public Policy Division and the NASPA Resource & Policy Institute staff. While I routinely forward the monthly postings from the Public Policy Division to my student affairs staff, I could also share these updates with the appropriate student government leaders, answering their questions to the best of my ability. In addition, a great connection that may be able to be made on your campus is connecting your student government president and/or student government legislative affairs director with your institution’s governmental relations officer. This connection at my alma mater was so useful to provide synergistic collaboration from the university and the student government.
  • Organizing: Finally, how can student government advisors and student affairs administrators support student governments in organizing for public policy endeavors. As a student body president, I interacted frequently with my student government advisor as I prepared student leaders on my campus (both those involved with student government and those not involved with student government) in student advocacy days at the state capitol as well as campus events for local legislative officials to understand the institution’s influence at multiple levels.

It is our role, as a student government advisor, to set our student government leaders up for success as they prepare to represent the voice of our students.