Olena Rypich/The AS Review

With the cost for higher education rising, students are taking charge. Gov. Christine Gregoire recently recommended a tuition increase of 11 percent per year for two years, meaning a raise of approximately $2100 in tuition costs for current sophomores. Over the holiday weekend, a group of 50 Western students attended the 2011 Viking Lobby Day in Olympia, Wash. Students met with state legislators to discuss the Associated Students Legislative Agenda and advocate issues directly impacting the quality and accessibility of education at Western. The AS Review spoke with AS Vice President for Governmental Affairs Byron Starkey before Viking Lobby Day about the importance of the event and student involvement in the legislative process.

The AS Review: First of all, what is Viking Lobby Day?

Byron Starkey: Viking Lobby Day is a day where we send a group of Western students down to Olympia where they can advocate for issues that directly impact students, issues such as financial aid and operating budget for the university.

Review: Why is it important to include the whole student body in this event?

Starkey: Because every individual attending has a unique story about why higher education is important to them. If we just limit it to a couple individuals, then we’re not truly representing Western.

Review: How did you select the group of 50 students?

Starkey: Initially, we were going to take about 40, but we got more applications. By the time the registration deadline closed, we had 50 students, and I didn’t want to reject anybody.

Review: Have you gone to an event such as this one in the past? What happened?

Starkey: Yes. Last year, I attended Viking Lobby Day. I was a group leader. What we did was we had three or four meetings with various representatives and senators. We talked about the legislative agenda that the Associated Students created and students shared personal stories about why getting a college education is important and also why funding higher education and financial aid are important to them. Students who were on the State Need Grant or were State Work Study would tell why that is an important aspect and why it is important for that type of funding to be available to students who need it.

Review: What was the reaction from the legislators?

Starkey: It was very positive. We had a couple legislators who pushed back on a couple of issues, but in general, they were pleased to see that students were taking ownership of their education.

Review: Do you feel that this kind of student participation helps Western?

Starkey: I feel that it does. It puts a face to the decisions that are being made. We’re facing a situation this year where we’re looking at significant budget cuts to Western. It’s one of those situations where we don’t know what would happen if we weren’t to do this and be involved and lobby. At least we know we’re trying our best and we’re putting every effort that we can to preserve the quality of education at Western and also the accessibility. We also were able to sway a couple legislators on a couple of specific issues that impacted higher education as well.

Review: Could you explain that more?

Starkey: Last year there were a couple specific pieces of legislation that were being debated when we went down to Olympia. While some legislators were about to make a vote, what we did was we passed a note to the person on the floor and we actually changed a couple votes through that process. If we have students down there, talking to their representatives, we can change their minds. Sometimes the information we have might not necessarily be in their hands at the time they are making certain votes.

Review: What can all Western students do to influence decisions made in Olympia?

Starkey: You can contact legislators by either writing an e-mail, letter or making a phone call, and those are very effective if you just be honest, why education is important to you and why Western, and Western to continually be funded, matters to you. That, or if students are interested in testifying, we can always send students down to testify in front of the legislators. If they want to do that, they can always contact me. We will take their contact information and then we will let them know if there is a key time when we need people to go testify.

Review: What is on the agenda this year?

Starkey: We are going to be focusing on the operating budget of the university that will impact things such as class size, the quality of education we’re getting, the number of classes that are being offered, academic advising, support services and everything that is core to the education that we get. And then we’re also going to focus on financial aid, because that greatly impacts students and the governor’s budget that she recently proposed would result in some State Work Study positions being lost that would impact students’ ability to pay for education and that’s very important to us at the Associated Students.