On a typical day, Sarah Ishmael is at the office by 7 a.m. She testifies at a committee hearing at 8 a.m., meets with state representatives and senators throughout the day, and if she's lucky, gets to go home by 5 p.m., though often it's closer to seven.
One might assume Ishmael has long since graduated from college and is well into a career in legislation, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Ishmael is only 19, and this demanding schedule is all in a day's work for her in her role as Western's legislative liaison.
“I mainly act as a connection between the Associated Students government of Western, the Governor's Office and the legislature,” she explained. “I look out for legislation that would harm students in any way and make sure that we get an opinion on it. Then I report back to the legislator and/or the governor and tell them how we feel.”
Being Western's legislative liaison is a big responsibility, but Ishmael came close to missing the opportunity altogether. Ishmael turned in her application for the job last summer after seeing it on Western's Web site, but soon afterwards left for a vacation in Aruba.
“I couldn't take phone calls because it was international,” Ishmael said. “So apparently my boss, [AS vice president for legislative and governmental affairs] Erik [Lowe], had been calling me trying to schedule an interview, but I didn't find out until I got back to Florida and Erik had said, ‘Ok, this is the last message I'm going to leave you.' When I called him back, he'd had a pen in his hand to cross my name off the list.”
Ishmael interviewed for the position and was hired three hours later.
“I was shocked,” Ishmael remembered. “I think I spit out my sandwich when he called.”
Ishmael faced an unusually steep learning curve after accepting her position. According to Ishmael, the legislative liaison position is usually filled during spring quarter, but the previous year's liaison had decided she didn't want to do the job over the summer. This meant that she had to start learning her job quickly and in many ways independently.
“Jumping into this job headfirst with not a lot of training is nothing that anyone can prepare you for,” Ishmael said. “It was extremely difficult for me. But there was a liaison's notebook that helped me a lot, and I asked Erik and [AS President] Ramiro [Espinoza] questions. It was just a lot of trial and error—venturing out and meeting people and seeing what went down.”
Ishmael has been living in Olympia to fulfill her duties during the Washington State legislative session, which began Jan. 14 and will end on March 13. Ishmael is a Fairhaven student and is able to count her legislative work as an independent study project, but her long hours and many responsibilities can still be overwhelming.
“It's a lot of running around all day,” Ishmael said. “Most nights when we go home, the work doesn't stop, because you have to e-mail and work on other projects. I don't know a single liaison who has gone to bed before 11:30, and then we have to get up at five the next day. It's an intense schedule.”
According to Lowe, Ishmael's presence in Olympia is crucial for communicating Western's needs to people who can make a difference.
“In order for AS priorities to be heard in Olympia, we need someone there full time during the session to put a face to the voice of Western students,” Lowe said. “Sarah is one of the best verbal communicators I've ever met. She's very good at meeting people and getting them to see her view.”
One issue Ishmael and the liaisons from Washington's other major universities are currently working on in Olympia is campus safety.
“We want to make sure that mental health is included in our campus safety measures, because what you'll find in a lot of tragedies like Virginia Tech is that there was a breakdown in communication between mental health counselors,” Ishmael explained.
According to her, another priority for the liaisons is ensuring that childcare on campus is widely available and affordable to all students.
“Childcare on higher education campuses is at a crisis point because students have to pay such high amounts to get their children into daycare on our campuses,” she said. “We came together to help write legislation that will deal with that.”
That legislation, House Bill 2582, would make more money available to students through trust funds designated to help finance child care, according to the Washington State Legislature Web site.
Giving input and helping in the legislative process means that Ishmael is able to work with state representatives, senators and other influential government officers who most students do not have access to. Ishmael said speaking to such important people can be intimidating, but not for long.
“In the beginning, when you're in front of the Appropriations Committee and they're sitting on the dias, you're just like, ‘Hi, I'm a student,'“ Ishmael said with a laugh. “But then you realize they're just people who are passionate about helping others. When it comes down to it, they're just concerned, amazing people who have chosen to dedicate their lives to public service.”
Ishmael said that there is a possibility that she will not be holding the position of Legislative Liaison next year. If she does choose to move on from the role, she plans on training her successor extensively to meet the demands of the position.
“I think this is a position that every student should have the chance to have,” Ishmael said. “I want to make sure that I can see people in this position learning and growing, because it's an amazing opportunity, and I wouldn't want to hold anyone back.”
In the future, she plans to pursue a career in public service law, but her time serving as a liaison has instilled in her a passion for legislature that may influence her eventual career path.
“I probably will not end up in the legislature as the first step in my career, but I most likely will end up there at some point,” Ishmael said. “Because as much as the process is complicated and tiring, you really do get addicted to it.”