Making their voices heard: Civically engaged students head to Capitol to lobby for ISU
Almost every day a new hashtag emerges to alert society of a cause. Discussions, rallies, and protests happen. Concerned citizens offer opinions and thoughts on a variety of platforms. Friends and families engage in discourse. Community leaders and crowds chant for peace, justice, or a solution to the civil unrest around them.
While the messaging changes and causes vary, there’s a common theme in nearly every movement: It will be up to young people to shape the future.
Illinois State University is full of tomorrow’s leaders, and plenty of Redbirds begin to make their voices heard while in school. Students from disciplines across campus actively participate in lobbying at the Illinois Capitol in Springfield, making their pitches to legislators from across the state.
“It’s one of our pillars for the University, so what we are trying to create is that our students become lifelong participants in civic engagement,” said Director of Alumni Relations Stephanie Duquenne ’04, M.S. ’15, who helps prepare student lobbyists. “It gets them to think beyond themselves and makes them think of how they can make a difference.”
One thing that attracted Dr. Jonathan Lackland, director of Governmental Relations, to Illinois State was the University’s story. Lackland had done budget work with the University during his previous role at the Illinois Board of Higher Education and was familiar with its leadership and mission. He also found that Redbird students were involved citizens.
Right around the time Lackland started at Illinois State in 2015, the state was cutting appropriations for Monetary Awards Program (MAP) Grants, a program designed to provide financial assistance for students in need. His first week on the job, Lackland received a call from a theatre student asking to go to Springfield to talk to legislators about this ongoing concern. Six other students wanted to join the trip.
Lackland met with that group daily to go over strategies and talking points before the Illinois Board of Higher Education Student Advisory Committee’s Lobby Day, which takes place every spring at the Capitol. Lackland’s arrival to campus was perfectly timed with the student concerns as Lackland wanted to begin taking students to Springfield anyway.
“I wanted them integrated into the public policy process because they’re the game changer,” Lackland said.
This group was energized and informed, and presented themselves professionally to lawmakers. Lackland was able to confirm what he already knew: The core value of community engagement at Illinois State was sturdy.
“That’s the reason why Illinois State has the reputation that it has,” he said.
The students’ message resonated with lawmakers. In 2019 the state’s new budget included $451.3 million for MAP, the largest appropriation in the fund’s history, according to Illinois Public Media.
Before each Lobby Day, Lackland and Duquenne prepare students months in advance on talking points focused on that year’s selected topic. They hold sessions on Saturdays and Sundays to go over sample questions and research. But once the Illinois State contingent arrives in Springfield, Lackland and Duquenne step back and let the students dictate the conversation.
“One thing that I think differentiates us is how well-prepared our students are, and how well-spoken they are, and how they aren’t afraid to speak,” Duquenne said. “They don’t necessarily want to do some casual chitchatting. They want to meet legislators and they want to take the 10 minutes they have with them and let them know what their concerns are.”
Sarah Aguilar ’20, who graduated in May with a degree in psychology, served her last two years as the student trustee on the Illinois State Board of Trustees. She was also a member of Student Government and went to Lobby Day all four of her undergraduate years.
Every time Aguilar went to the Capitol on behalf of the University, she told legislators and other public officials how much Illinois State was readying her for the future and how the institution was preparing students to become strong members of society. She remembered specific conversations with Rep. Emmanuel Chris Welch, as well as Lt. Gov. Julianna Stratton, about how important it was to fund university initiatives and to make sure students of all backgrounds had similar opportunities.
“What was unique was that we came from different backgrounds and had different goals for our futures,” Aguilar said. “They saw how much ISU was impacting us and how much we wanted to give back to the state and be productive citizens.”
Aguilar said it is important for students to be civically engaged because these specific policies—whether they are MAP Grant appropriations, employment after college, or the direction of the state budget—will directly affect students’ futures. Getting in the habit of civic involvement as a young adult can lead to better communication and concrete results down the line.
“If you don’t like what’s going on, it’s up to you to make a change,” she said. “I think every student’s voice matters.”
Other campus groups and departments also visit the Capitol to lobby for various causes.
Last November, Drs. Jacqueline Lanier and Alicia Wodika took a group of health science and promotion students to sit-in on a veto session about the flavor-ban bill, which barred flavors in tobacco products and e-cigarettes. That group also met with Stratton to hear her thoughts on the importance of health equity and creating healthy communities. Social work students have attended the Illinois Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers’ annual lobby day.
While not all of Illinois State’s 20,000-plus students can go to the Capitol building on allotted days, they can all have a direct effect on policies going forward with the most basic form of civic participation: voting.
Lackland said it is vital for students to educate themselves on the work and ideas of people such as lobbyists to put the elected officials most qualified to represent their pursuits in office.
“There are a lot of people that fought for all of our freedoms and all of our rights to be able to cast that God-given, inalienable right to vote,” Lackland said. “And in some sense, I feel like when we do go to the polls, we’re going to the polls on the backs of those giants that allowed us and afforded us the opportunity to not only have a voice, but to know that we do have a voice to use.”
In a decade’s time, millennials and Gen Z will make up nearly 60 percent of the workforce. It will be up to them to shape the future they see fit. That is, if they answer the call. At Illinois State, students are being prepared to do just that.