Inaugural Hill Days: Observations From The Steamy Streets

naspa divisions groups public policy division

Laura A. De Veau, M.Ed.

July 31, 2018

The Inaugural “Hill Days and National Student Affairs Day of Action” was held in Washington, D.C. July 16 and 17.  43 student affairs professionals were provided with an opportunity to sharpen their advocacy skills by meeting with Congressional staffers from the House of Representatives and the Senate.  As an individual who is a bit of a political ‘wonk’, I was looking forward to this opportunity since December when I applied, and had visions of striding into Betsy De Voss’s office and going De Veau to DeVos.  Although the match-up- never materialized (it still plays out in my imagination), the experience provided a keener understanding of what happens on the Hill and how constituent voices are heard.

In the months leading up to the experience, Hill Days participants received several training opportunities via webinars that focused on four areas of advocacy: Free Speech on College Campuses, Higher Education Reauthorization Act, Immigration and International Students, and Title IX.  The preparation was helpful in furthering my knowledge of the these ‘umbrella’ issues, and also providing a chance to reflect on what was happening on the ground and how student affairs professionals could share examples and stories with our legislators and their staff, that might bring a stronger understanding of the spirit behind why these issues are important.

I thought back on times before the “Dear Colleague” letter of 2011 and how I had experienced firsthand student and staff mistreatment around matters of sexual misconduct and harassment. Seeing a student drop out of college and a staff member leave their profession due to lack of effective oversight is not simply a black-eye on higher education as well as a damning statement about the pervasiveness of power and privilege. These memories are not simply a story to tell, they are reflections on real lives and real humans who had real potential.  They, along with many more memories, were the fuel to propel me on my day of advocacy.

Prior to hitting the Hill, a day was spent in sessions where we were provided with NASPA Policy statements, opportunities to plan and role play, and insights on what to expect and do and how to mentally prepare for congressional visits. As I look back at my notes, here are a few of my favorite reflections:

Tip: “Don’t be surprised if you meet in a hallway, space is limited in these offices, especially in the House [of Representatives].” 

My thought: So the House of Representatives has the same issue that we have in higher education, people believe what they see in the movies and TV. (We never met in a hallway, but we did sit in some tiny, overcrowded spaces – except in Elizabeth Warren’s Office)

Tip: “Don’t forget to ask to get a photo, even if the Congressperson isn’t meeting with you, it’s ok to ask.”

My thought: “Don’t fangirl on Joe Kennedy.” (I failed)

Tip “Encourage leadership to be bi-partisan. Issues are won from the middle, not from the ends,”

My thought: This is going to be a problem. (I succeeded)

Tip 1 (from the Republican Staffer): “Stay away from the ‘I feel statements’.”

Tip 2 (from the Legislative Advocacy Pro): “Make sure they know how you feel. Feelings are compelling.”  
My thought: Well … you have a choice to make. (And I did)

Participants from each state or region were organized into visit teams, and I was grateful to have been matched with two committed individuals, Lawrence P. Ward, VPSA and Dean of Students at Babson College, and Erin Kelley, Director of Student Conduct and Title IX Coordinator at Bentley University. NASPA set up 5 appointments for our team to meet with three members of the House of Representatives, who had connections to our respective institutions due to their district locations, and our two Senators. Larry also had the opportunity to join NASPA President, Kevin Kruger, and a small delegation of participants for a morning listening session at the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education.  

For those inquiring minds, OCR staffers told those at the listening session that their goal was to get out further Title IX guidance by September.

The Congressional delegation from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are all Democrats, and typically known for their support for education-related matters, and their staffs were well informed about matters impacting the Higher Education Act Reauthorization, specifically the Promise Act proposal from Education Committee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC); Title IX, in the areas of both sexual misconduct and trans rights; Dreamers and how uncertain times are further complicating their enrollment in colleges; and how free expression must remain a cornerstone of the university experience.  Staffers were receptive and asked thoughtful questions, showing it was important for them to hear from constituents who were facing issues each day.

I drew from the recommendation regarding feelings, because I believe that no one can tell you how to feel, and if they try, they will realize that was a foolish route to take.  You see, with the sharing of feelings come authenticity, and that is difficult to argue against.

Well done, NASPA, and to my fellow colleagues who participated in the Inaugural Hill Days, thank you for your adventurous spirit, despite the steamy temperatures.  For all of us, remember, as former Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill once said, “All politics is local.” Take some time this summer to read up on legislation that impacts higher education at the local as well as federal level, and find your voice of advocacy.  

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