Column and photo by Olena Rypich/The AS Review

Here at The AS Review, we are not just writers, photographers and editors. We are also students. As such, we will freely admit we have an interest and a bias in supporting funding for higher education. When our Events Editor Olena Rypich decided to join other students during Viking Lobby Day to go straight to Olympia to lobby for funding to state universities, we asked her to keep a journal of her experience for all of those who couldn’t make it.

Inside the Legislative Building Jan. 17, (from left) AS VP for Student Life Jamin Agosti, Mike Pond, Lauren Squires, Tom Barkholz, Erika Whittaker and Western VP for University Relations Steve Swan. Photo by Olena Rypich/The AS Review

Sunday, Jan. 16

2 p.m.: Outside of the Viking Union.

A group of 50 Western students boarded a charter bus outside the Viking Union and we left to conquer Olympia. Well, at least to stop hikes in tuition, cuts to work-study positions and university funding.  I got myself acquainted with everybody on the bus and between the (often hilarious) conversations and jokes, the otherwise long and boring three-hour ride seemed quite quick.

8 p.m.: The Governor Hotel in Olympia

After checking into the Governor Hotel in Olympia, we all met back at the hotel’s breakfast room for our training. Mike Bogatay, the executive director of the Washington Student Association and Associated Students Legislative Liaison Iris Maute-Gibson gave us tips about what to do and not do while meeting with the legislators: don’t plop down on their couch, don’t wear flashy jewelry, etc. We went over the 2011 AS Legislative Agenda and its key points, which focused on keeping tuition levels accessible and predictable for students and opposing any financial aid reductions. Maute-Gibson also talked about the logistics of lobbying: how to best present yourself to representatives, tell them how the budget cuts are affecting the students and put a face to the problem. We subsequently split into small groups with our group leaders and planned the following day. We shared our personal stories that related to the items on the agenda.

Erika Whittaker, my group leader, is a senior majoring in sociology and minoring in political science. Whittaker came to oppose cuts to financial aid because if it wasn’t for financial aid, she said she wouldn’t be at Western. Whittaker’s parents divorced when she was younger and her mother qualified for the Gear Up Scholarship. Whittaker spent four years doing everything from tutoring younger children to participating in Habitat For Humanity. In return for her four-year commitment to volunteering, she received a $4,000 stipend for the four years she would attend a Washington state university. She said she went to lobby so that all students could have access to education. “Higher education shouldn’t be a privilege,” she would later tell me. “It is a right.”

Tom Barkholtz, a junior, came to Western to earn his degree in human services after he was laid off from his job. He said that without financial aid he would not have the opportunity to get a college diploma while also supporting his family. “I feel privileged,” he said. “As an older student, I am quite aware of the difficulty of supporting a family and making ends meet.  There have been times when an unexpected expense arose and caused a great strain. When the time comes for some students to start paying their loans, it could become a hardship for them.  I can feel for them and hope financial aid will improve and cost of tuition gets lowered. “

Like me, Mike Pond, a senior communication major, had to take out loans to stay in school. We’re both looking at having to pay about $20,000 in accumulated loans (with a growing interest), probably before we own our homes.

Lauren Squires, a senior and Environmental and Sustainability Programs associate director, advocated for the State Work-Study program and not eliminating positions. She said her office greatly benefited from the help of a work-study student and cutting these positions would be a disservice to the university, she said.

Monday, Jan. 17.

7:45 a.m.: Breakfast room at the Governor Hotel

When I walked into the breakfast room, I saw everyone dressed very professionally.  Students whom I am usually used to seeing in jeans, Uggs, tennis shoes and sweatshirts were now looking sharp in suits, ties, pencil skirts and high heels. It was actually a nice change. Every group had a different agenda for the day. My group walked a couple blocks to our first meeting, scheduled to take place a building known as Mod D, perhaps an abbreviation for modest. Nothing fancy, just offices. Everyone agreed it made plenty of sense for the legislators to work there. The actual Legislative Building, as we later saw, was a lot more on the regal side.

8:45 a.m.: Meeting with our first representative

We met with Rep. Hans Zeiger, a Republican from the 25th district, just east of Tacoma. Zeiger is currently the second-youngest representative and is fresh out of graduate school.

We shared with him our personal stories. He was sympathetic, but said frankly that legislators would not be looking at higher education as their highest priority. He said one idea he would propose would concentrate on helping undergraduate students before lending support to graduate students, so everyone at least has a degree.

10a.m.: On the Legislative campus

I met with Maute-Gibson, and we talked about her role as a liaison between Western students and the state legislature. Maute-Gibson is currently living in Olympia and works with the representatives as part of an internship in the political science department. She told me her day starts at 5 a.m. One of the first things she does is call Byron Starkey, AS vice president for governmental affairs, to tell him her agenda. Then she spends the day doing extensive research and meeting with representatives until the day ends, once again, talking on the phone with Starkey.

10:45 a.m.: Legislative Building

The building is beautiful and the size of four football fields. Designed in a mixture of Roman, Greek and neo-classical style, it is often compared to the U.S. Capitol. The exterior is adorned with marble and an impressive 1.5-ton chandelier built specifically for the building by the Tiffany Lighting Co. of New York City. That cost of that thing alone could probably put me through college. Just saying.  It was built and furnished for about $7.4 million. To reconstruct the Legislative Building with the same materials and workmanship today, it would cost over $1 billion, according to the State of Washington General Administration website.

1:30 p.m: Meeting with more representatives

Western Vice President for University Relations Steve Swan joined our group for the meeting with Rep. Joel Kretz, a Republican from the 7th district, in the very northwest corner of the state.  Kretz’s office is on the fancy side, with ritzy furniture and rugs.

Next was the meeting with Rep. Timm Ormsby, a Democrat from the 3rd district, in the Spokane area. His assistant warned us: Ormsby is a blunt individual and doesn’t sugarcoat things. In response to our argument that investing in college education will pay out in the long term, he said that’s not possible. “Some would say we’re being penny-wise and a pound-foolish,” he lamented. “That’s true. But we simply don’t have any money left.” Nothing promising came out of that meeting.

But it was a different tune in our meeting with Rep. Tina Orwall, a Democrat from the 33rd district, between Seattle and Tacoma. I am one of Orwall’s constituents and I certainly felt like it. Orwall is an incredibly nice and understanding woman, and because I have a say in whether she’s re-elected or not, it seemed she devoted attention to me and my problems. Unlike the other representatives, she seemed optimistic. At least she said what I hadn’t heard before: she wanted to hear from students like me. Because her job is to represent us, Orwall said she will fight for higher education. The groups who go down to Olympia or start conversations about important issues get heard the most, and their issues receive more attention.

That was our final meeting, and after a long day of negativity, I was suddenly feeling hopeful. “[Lobbying] gets your voice out and you know your representative heard it,” Barkholtz said. “I made unscheduled calls on two of my representatives.  When I stopped in, they made a point to see me, putting me ahead of others.  They listened to what I had to say intently and then thanked me for stopping by.  I got the feeling that my story was heard.”

After our last meeting, everyone was exhausted. A couple of groups went to hang out on the steps of the Legislative Building and once everyone was finished up with their meetings, we boarded our bus and said farewell to Olympia—for now.

The reason I say for now is because just one day of lobbying won’t solve Western’s problems. Sure, we went and we told them about our troubles and started a conversation. But to drive home the point, students must continually remind their representatives to fight for higher education. Write letters, e-mails or even head down to meet with them in person. Let’s put the “public” back in public education.