You want me to do what? Thoughts from a reformed reluctant advocate

I’ve been honored to participate in the Education Directorate’s Education Leadership Conferences (ELC).   I vividly recall reading the ELC materials sent prior to the first conference I attended.  When I read the part about “making Hill visits” it stopped me short; I thought, “Huh, say what?”   Surely I was misreading and they couldn’t actually be serious about “making Hill visits”, they were, and I did.    What an amazing experience!

Over the years, we have gone to the Hill, under all sorts of political conditions, and spoken about a range of issues including the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, Graduate Psychology Education Grants and this year, graduate loan debt.   And happily, after benefitting from excellent advocacy training, my reluctance indeed changed to enthusiasm, albeit cautious enthusiasm at first.

It’s just plain exciting to be on the Hill with colleagues making visits to congressional offices with requests that will make meaningful differences in society.  I confess, there is also a delight in seeing the offices of people you only read about in the news and the hallways full of doors framed with state flags.  And, what fun it is to discover the vast underground network of corridors, offices, dry cleaners, shops, and cafeterias that connect all of the senate and house buildings, just like a small underground city!

But it is much more than fun and novelty.

Advocacy for psychological issues is about believing in the importance of our issues, and seeing a need to educate congress members and the public about these issues.

The advocacy process is also about seeing countless other groups, all doing the same thing; all meeting and advocating for issues important to them, from parent groups advocating for increased childhood disease research to members of the video distribution industry discussing commerce regulations.  Literally all manner of people are there, everyone is welcome, and all are doing advocacy work.  To me, this is democracy in action and it is an honor to be a part of that process.

This year our advocacy issue was different than usual, it was broad and went beyond psychology.   We were advocating for restoration of the Federal Direct Subsidized Loan Program in the Higher Education Act reauthorization.  Although this was a bigger, perhaps more difficult “ask” than usual, the congressional staff we met were highly engaged.  Many congressional staffers seem very young and are probably paying off their own loan debt so we may have hit close to home.  I was delighted to meet with my house representative, Congresswoman Chu (CA-27) and her legislative aide, Ellen Hamilton.

Rep Judy Chu and the author, Jodie Ullman

Rep Judy Chu and the author, Jodie Ullman

We did begin by chatting a little about my town’s quirky 4th of July parade that the congresswoman always participates in, riding on the back of car.  As we moved to a discussion of the issues of graduate loan debt, to my delight and complete surprise, right there in the meeting, she decided to introduce a bill to reinstate the federal direct loan subsidized program!   This was simply astonishing to me and far beyond our request!   And, indeed, after much hard work from the Congresswoman, her staff, and the Education Directorate Office of Government Relations, in early December she introduced H.R. 4223, the “Protecting Our Students by Terminating Graduate Rates that Add to Debt” (POST GRAD) Act.  Wow!

This bill is critical to our graduate students who are increasingly graduating with crushing debt.   Beyond the stress associated with a growing debt burden, the commitment to pay the loans back often forces new graduates to make career choices based narrowly on income rather than a commitment to larger goals.   The public often thinks of undergraduate degrees as key to an educated workforce but overlook the role of advanced degrees in the workforce.  Without debt relief for graduate students we risk harming the educational development of the professionals we need to fill critical jobs that require advanced degrees, we know this in psychology, others may not.

So, we have work to do.  Each of us can make an impact, we really can!  Please click on the action alert link below and contact your congress members and ask for their support of H.R. 4223.   When we all work together our impact is enormous, I believe that is the key to making positive change.    Making Hill visits has been a career highlight for me, but we can advocate in all manner of ways, pick one that seems doable.  The key is realizing our voices are heard and matter!  Now, more than ever, we need to be advocates, we have the skills, ability, and dispositions to step up and advocate for critical education issues.   If we don’t speak out, we really can’t count on anyone else speaking up.  Please take a moment now to contact your congress member.  Together we succeed!

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About the Author

Jodie Ullman, Ph.D, is a quantitative psychologist and professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernardino, earning her degree from UCLA in measurement and psychometrics. Her areas of interest are in applied multivariate statistics; specifically structural equation modeling and multilevel modeling. She has had the honor of serving has chair of the Board of Education Affairs in 2014. Dr. Ullman is currently Past President of the Western Psychological Association (WPA). She is a Fellow in APA Division 2 and WPA. She is a past Faculty Senate chair at CSU, San Bernardino and is currently an active member of the statewide Academic Senate of the California State University.