Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the Education Leadership Conference (ELC), which was presented by the American Psychological Association (APA). As an APA graduate student affiliate (APAGS), I was honored to be one of the representatives for the graduate student body for APA. The conference included a wide variety of presentations that included research, reviews, opinions, and panel discussions. The focus of the conference was on the importance of translating psychological research to educational practice, policy, and the public.
As research presentations and discussion panels drew to a close, the focus of ELC changed to advocacy efforts. This involved specific sessions to assist all ELC participants to learn, understand, and apply specific advocacy skills in anticipation of their congressional meetings on Capitol Hill the following day. As a graduate student, I was initially nervous about this aspect of the conference because I had no prior experience in political advocacy. Furthermore, I was the only representative from my state and realized that I would be meeting with my state’s Congressional delegation by myself. At the final day of the conference, I walked into three meetings with three different representatives from Wisconsin and pleaded my case for our primary advocacy concern, which involved the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, specifically to restore graduate students eligibility for federally subsidized loans. I used my own personal experience with student debt to center the conversation: in 2008, I returned from a combat tour in Iraq. Upon exiting the military, I knew that I needed to make a difference with the veteran population, specifically to advocate for change in mental health service availability, quality of care to both veterans and their families, and to make an impact on today’s society. After completing my undergraduate degree in Child Psychology and my Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, I realized that the best way to make a difference was to work at a Veterans Affairs setting. One primary concern of mine before entering a doctoral program was how I was going to pay for this amount of schooling. Although I was fortunate to utilize the Montgomery G.I Bill, it did not cover all expenses that are required as a both an undergraduate or graduate student. As a current 2nd year doctoral student in Counseling Psychology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, I am continuing to take out student loans in order to ensure I am financially stable, regardless of assistantships and scholarships that are available to me. Overall, my student debt has heavily influenced my future endeavors and academic pathways in order to obtain a career working with veterans.
When the day was over, I sat in a coffee shop and reflected upon my experience and considered whether I had made a difference. As I sat still, I looked up and saw six other ELC participants walk in. I quickly realized that a difference was made. Not because of me, but because of a movement of force by ELC participants to stand together and fight for current and future psychologists.
When I returned to my institution, I shared my experiences with fellow students, professors, and colleagues. Several individuals asked me if this experience changed my views on advocacy or if I found a “calling” on Capitol Hill. I calmly replied by stating that advocating is a must for each graduate student, clinician, researcher, or academic. We must fight for what we believe in and prove to the entire world that psychology has a place. Furthermore, we must use our skills to advocate for our capability to be effective, including the lowering of student debt, which has plagued this country, and our field specifically.
Overall, I had a great experience at ELC and I enjoyed the consistent application of current research into the discussions with ELC participants. As a graduate student, it is vital for soon-to-be psychologists to take part in conferences that have a direct impact on the future of the profession and to have a strong voice within advocacy efforts that further advance our field, in both application and appearance to the public.