Due to the ongoing pandemic, so much has changed this year for college students, including how they are speaking with lawmakers. Swarms of students couldn’t crowd into the Capitol; instead, students spoke up from their dorms and apartments around the state. That was true as well for the 290 students who shared their views by Zoom about the value of investing in the State Grant program, which provides need-based aid to two in five Minnesota college students.
“I absolutely loved it,” said Briley Hale, a first-year at St. Catherine University. “I thought it was a great opportunity for multiple reasons: for the experience, getting to know Senator Champion and getting to advocate for something that’s really important and crucial for a lot of students.”
For Hale, college was not an option when she was younger, but she decided to go back to school at age 26 after losing her job at the beginning of the pandemic. The staff at St. Kate’s helped her see what she could do with her interest in studying American Sign Language and guided her throughout the financial aid process.
“The Minnesota State Grant is what pushed me over the edge. When I was told I was eligible to receive that money, it changed everything. It’s what kept me going to school. I owe a lot to the Minnesota State Grant and being able to stay in college. That leads into why I think it is so important that students are connecting with their legislators,” Hale said.
For Hale, the idea of being on a Zoom call with a legislator was a new one. It started with her involvement in student government at St. Kate’s, where the idea was shared along with the opportunity to prepare a head of time. The Minnesota Private College Council was working with students at member institutions over the winter, sharing information and resources about how to get involved through Student Voices.
A resident of Minneapolis, Hale had her meeting with her hometown legislator Sen. Bobby Champion in March.
She was grateful to learn from online trainings made by Council staff about how to share a personal story like how she found a place at St. Kate’s and what she planned to do with her ASL interpreting major after college. The purpose was to make the personal, political. And it worked. Hale met with Senator Bobby Joe Champion for the first time this past March.
“People want to talk to their legislators. What I really loved was you could see and feel that Senator Champion cares. He was engaging in what I had to say, and he knew a lot. When he didn’t know something, he was willing to listen to what we had to say,” Hale said.
Hale appreciated how Sen. Champion validated her concerns about the State Grant, knowing what it was like being at a smaller campus as a Macalester grad himself. He connected with her and kept it enjoyable; Hale related to him attending a smaller liberal arts school.
Having the meeting be held by Zoom instead of in person made it less intimidating, she said.
“I think COVID has done us a lot of favors to get connected with legislators now that we can just hop on a Zoom call instead of having to schedule an in-person meeting. It’s a little less nerve-wracking to be behind a computer screen,” Hale said. “Now, I will be less hesitant to reach out to legislators to share my opinion and advocate for other things,” Hale said.”
Keeping things virtual has made it easier for students to speak their truth in different ways. Aside from 70 Zoom meetings that private college students have had this session, students have also recorded short video testimonials. The videos were sent directly to their hometown legislators and shared on social media.
One of the students was Brenda De Rosas, a junior political science major from Albert Lea who attends Gustavus Adolphus College.
Another student was Alexandra Sogn, a senior chemistry major from Minneapolis who attends the College of St. Scholastica.
In addition, many students have been writing notes to their legislators. Altogether, the pandemic may have disrupted plenty, but students were still successful in speaking up. They strongly conveyed a need to invest in higher education to advance educational equity and opportunity across Minnesota.
“I’m so grateful there are people willing to put in this work that has a great impact,” Hale said. "I’m looking forward to continuing this relationship with the Council and getting more students involved and taking hold of our future — saying we have the power to make it what we want and what we deserve.”