Students advocate for issues affecting UA system

Lakeidra Chavis
February 19, 2013

Sometimes I think the state of American education is too often shaped by politics, money and conflicting ideals. The University of Alaska is not exempt from these factors. The UA Board of Regents requested approximately $1.5 million for academic advising as a part of the UA operating budget for the 2014 fiscal year. Alaska Governor Sean Parnell didn’t approve any of that. Despite this budget cut, there’s still hope.

Whatever Parnell cuts in the budget, the Legislature has the power to put back. So last weekend from Feb. 8 to Feb. 13, I went to Juneau with 39 other UA students  for the 28th annual Student Legislative Conference. The four-day annual conference takes place at the beginning of each Legislative session, which lasts 90 days. This year, the Coalition of Student Leaders chose academic advising, a part of the High Demand Program Requests, as their advocacy topic this year. This section of the operating budget would cost around $1.5 million.

This year will mark the second year in a row that Parnell has cut the $1.5 million for academic advising out of the budget. Last year, the budget was cut to create a dialogue between students and the Lfegislature. There was no reason given for the budget cut this year.

ASUAF members Mari Freitag, Dillon Ball, Bryant Hopkins, Ayla O’Scannell, Fred Brown and Rebekah Schmidt represented UAF, as well as students Courtney Enright, Brenda Hannah and myself. Students also came from UAA, UAS and the MatSu campuses. Students were chosen by their respective student governments.

Hopkins said that the CSL chose academic advising because it is an issue that affects the entire university system. “The University system has been extremely vocal in urging students to complete their degrees in a timely manner and the students understand that this can be accomplished with adequate advising,” Hopkins said in an email.

“The state budgets this year are likely going to be difficult, and we decided that our time would be best spent advocating for something that all students will benefit from,” Freitag said in an email.

Although I’ve been very fortunate to have good advisers, I’ve had a lot of friends who haven’t been as fortunate. Good academic advising  can improve the university system in many ways. “Having a strong academic advising can raise graduation rates and help students finish in four years, in turn this creates a stronger university. That is why the Coalition made advising a priority and it effects every campus significantly,” Schmidt said in an email.

The first two days were filled with 8-hour training sessions. On the first day of training, CSL Keynote Speaker Rep. Kathy Munoz spoke to us about the description of leadership. We then had round table discussions with Rep. John Coghill, Rep. Tammy Wilson, UAF Alumni Association Director Joe Hayes and a few legislative staffers. On the second day, the National Association of Student Grants and Loans Treasurer Stephanie Butler spoke to us about the Alaska Performance Scholarship. Later that day, legislative staffer Jesse Keal talked to us about meeting legislators and how politics work in Juneau. The speakers educated us about some of the important things currently taking place in the university and also prepared us for our meetings with legislators. After our training, we spent the next two days meeting with legislators.

While in Juneau, I was able to meet with Sen. Click Bishop, Sen. Pete Kelly and Rep. Steve Thompson. We spoke with them about our advocacy trip, why we were requesting funding for academic advising and how advising has affected us. All of the legislators and staffers I spoke to were really supportive of the university, and although I don’t know how much of an influence we will have on the budget, but I’d like to think we definitely made an impact by sharing our stories.

“I still think the trip was successful. The legislators always appreciate seeing students and hearing our stories,” Freitag said.

I think perhaps the biggest thing I realized was that legislators are people too. Bishop gave us cool blue and gold Alaska state pins. Rep. Scott Kawasaki friended us on Facebook and let us use his office as a place to stash our jackets and to get free Red Bull. Staffers showed us pictures of their families and we even ate ice cream with some of the legislators we weren’t able to meet with.

I think students often feel that they have little influence on what goes in the university system. We can’t decide on the university budget, tuition increases or even the quality our academic advising. We accept our losses and call it politics. I’ve learned last weekend that it’s not that simple. Despite what some people may believe, students can make a difference. Politicians are public officials that we elect. They are in the capital to represent our issues, our views and our future.

Updated Feb. 19, 11:56 a.m.: In the original version of this story we confused UA President Pat Gamble with Govenor Sean Parnell. We apologize for errors, they have since been fixed.

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