Minnesota’s private college students are active at the state Capitol, whether they are testifying on behalf of a program that benefits their fellow students, interning for a state legislator, or organizing advocacy efforts. Here are four stories of students who are making a difference through their work at the Capitol.
Davaris Cheeks: Testifying in support of the Minnesota State Grant program
On March 3, Davaris Cheeks, a junior at Concordia University, St. Paul, testified in front of the Minnesota Senate Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee in support of the Minnesota State Grant program.
Because Cheeks had previously worked with Concordia’s student senate to advocate for the State Grant and Pell Grant programs, members of the faculty and administration asked if he would be willing to testify. He was happy to accept the opportunity. “I have so many friends that are impacted by these different grant programs, myself included,” he said. “It was a no brainer.”
By the time he spoke before the committee, he had started an advocacy internship with Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota. After familiarizing himself with the organization and its priorities, he began attending committee hearings and keeping Goodwill-Easter Seals’ bill tracker up to date. He also helped support the organization’s participation in Second Chance Day, which advocates for people with past involvement in the criminal justice system.
This work has helped Cheeks realize how much of a difference people can make when they are willing to testify in front of committees. “At first I wasn’t sure of how much I would impact the legislators, being a 20-year-old college student,” he said. “But when they’re discussing bills and talking about what they want to include, what they want to pass on to the governor, and things that they want to allocate their money to, they bring up these stories and lived experiences.”
Because of this, Cheeks encourages others, especially young people, to say “yes” to opportunities to testify in support of something that is important to them. “Testimonies usually only last about two minutes, and you can have it all scripted out,” he said. “If you really are passionate about something, the more you speak up about it, the better your chances are. Just know that your voice will never go unheard.”
Angel Sacta Espinoza: Working behind the scenes as a legislative intern
Angel Sacta Espinoza’s internship with Minnesota State Representative John Huot began as a happy accident.
A senior at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, Espinoza has served on the school’s student senate for four years. As a campus leader and a Minnesota State Grant recipient, he met with state legislators to advocate for the program last year. One of those legislators was Huot. “At the end of our call, he said, ‘I notice you’re studying criminal justice, and you mentioned that you’re interested in police reform. You’re minoring in psychology as well. I’d like to talk to you about an opportunity.’ He said he could use someone like me to get a student’s perspective, and he offered me an internship,” said Angel. “I spoke with him about the State Grant so that more students like me can attend Minnesota colleges and universities, and I got an internship.”
As an intern, Espinoza conducts a lot of research, including examining bills that have been proposed and considering changes Huot might want to suggest, performing background research for a bill that Huot might introduce, and assessing community needs and considering how Huot could address those needs. He also takes minutes at meetings and attends events.
Espinoza is grateful for the opportunity to intern for Huot, and he would recommend the experience to any college student who is interested in politics or political issues. “You can see what it takes to form a bill — all the behind-the-scenes stuff and how being a politician really works. You also can see the impact of bills on the community. There are bills that have been passed that affect my district, and I think, ‘I was a part of this!’ It’s a lot of work, but the experience is rewarding.”
Ellie Kent: Promoting the priorities of Minnesota’s social workers
St. Olaf junior Ellie Kent became a policy liaison for the National Association of Social Workers-Minnesota when she responded to a professor’s request: Were any juniors who were majoring in social work interested in advocacy? Kent volunteered and wound up becoming one of approximately 20 students, both undergraduate and graduate, who were focused on preparing for NASW-MN Advocacy Week, a week focused on promoting social workers’ priorities at the state Capitol.
“This year Advocacy Week was virtual,” Kent said, “but normally it would be in-person at the state Legislature. A lot of what we did was telling fellow students who were studying social work what was happening and getting them to meet with their legislators from their districts during Advocacy Week. We also reached out to our own legislators to connect with them and go over some of our Advocacy Week priorities.”
Those priorities fell under two categories. First, they focused on the social work profession itself. These included diversifying social workers to be representative of the populations they are working with and expanding accessibility for mental health services through methods such as telehealth.
In addition, the policy liaisons and their fellow students advocated for some of the populations social workers serve. “Social work touches many, if not all, aspects of social welfare,” Kent said. “One of our big priorities was working on the housing crisis in Minnesota, expanding affordable and accessible housing. Child welfare is another big one, as well as reimagining community safety.”
Kent has become more confident about reaching out to representatives because of her work during Advocacy Week. “I think there’s often a fear amongst people about reaching out to their representatives,” she said. “I’ve learned legislators want to hear from their constituents. And now I’ve received emails from representatives I’ve spoken to about the information they received from NASW and how inspired they were to use this information from concerned Minnesotans who want to have these priorities brought into both chambers.”
Dylan Monahan: Advocating for Minnesota’s private college students
Dylan Monahan, a junior at the University of St. Thomas, is preparing for future advocacy work after college while championing students’ interests as the legislative chair of the Minnesota Association of Private College Students.
“As a private college student, you don’t often think about the impact that government policy has, because private college funding isn’t directly related to government in the way that public college funding is,” said Monahan. Working with MAPCS has helped him see how government policies affect private college students and given him an understanding of how advocacy works.
Student leaders from the private colleges and universities that make up the Minnesota Private College Council come together both to share their experiences as members of student governments, discussing the initiatives they’re working on, and to advocate for their fellow students on both the state and federal levels.
One of the issues MAPCS has recently focused on is the Hunger Free Campus Initiative. This initiative seeks to expand Minnesota’s Hunger-Free Campus program, which currently covers public colleges, universities, and technical schools as well as tribal colleges. A letter of support for the Hunger Free Campus Law from MAPCS states: “Hunger knows no boundaries,” affecting students at schools throughout the state, including private colleges and universities.
“We did a lot of individual lobbying on our campuses and legislative outreach, and some of our members testified in support of the bill. It hasn’t passed yet, but it’s in the House,” Monahan said.
In addition to the current focus on food insecurity on campus, MAPCS members have reached out to elected officials on the state and federal levels asking for new investments in need-based grants that go to students. For Monahan that’s included organizing events at Saint Mary’s for students who receive State Grant awards to write thank you notes to state senators and representatives. “It makes me happy to see students connect with legislators about this important funding,” he said.