I was excited when NAFSA Region III offered me a scholarship to attend the 2010 NAFSA Advocacy Day event in Washington, DC. I wanted NAFSA to know that I will put the money to good use. But what use?
I never thought of myself as a lobbyist or an advocate for anything international. I had never attended Advocacy Day before, never been to Capitol Hill, and the thought of going to Washington to advocate for international education made me nervous.
At Advocacy Day, I met international educators from across the country: immigration advisors like me, as well as folks who worked in study abroad programs, academic affairs, and other areas of international education. Some were more nervous than I was; others seemed confident and passionate. The clairvoyant NAFSA staff seemed to know exactly how anxious we newcomers felt. Seasoned advocates spoke about being uneasy themselves when they first attended Advocacy Day. That helped relieve my concerns. By the end of the day I felt a part of one big happy advocacy family. I was ready to hit the Hill, armed with issue briefs and a map.
On a beautiful Wednesday morning I got off the metro and walked to meet my first appointment in the Hart Senate Office Building with a staffer from Senator Mary Landrieu’s office. The meeting started awkwardly as my host announced that she did not “do immigration.” I was disappointed for a moment, but remembered to be flexible and open-minded. Meetings don’t always go as planned. It turned out that I enjoyed the meeting. My host was born in the Philippines and she shared her mom’s stories as an immigrant in the United States. The stories were similar to the experiences of our scholars. I thanked her for an enlightening morning and I headed to the Cannon House Office Building for my next meeting with a staffer for Representative Bill Cassidy.
Before I sat down to wait for my host, my congressman walked in and introduced himself. He sensed an accent in my speech and asked where I was from. I was preparing to explain where in the world my tiny home country is, when he told me he not only knew where Malawi was, he actually went there many years ago. As if I needed proof, he told me about a unique Malawian souvenir, a chief’s chair, that he brought home with him from Malawi. He was proud of the job we are doing at Louisiana State University (LSU). He listened keenly to the immigration issues I addressed, and wished me well in my meeting with his staffer. The discussion with his staffer was refreshing. He previously worked for an immigration firm and was very familiar with the issues. I left the meeting excited, and literally ran back to the Senate for my final appointment. Thanks to the NAFSA trainers, I wore flat, comfortable shoes.
My final host was Senator David Vitter’s staffer, an international studies major who had taken a course taught by my husband at LSU. He had a keen interest in international education. We discussed the issues and some of the immigration problems our international students and scholars face.
After Advocacy Day, I realized that advocacy is really a process, not a single event. My advocacy process had just begun. When I returned to Baton Rouge, I sent thank you e-mails to my hosts for allowing me time to discuss issues of importance to me and to our international students and scholars. I also talked with my colleagues about my Advocacy Day experiences and I spoke at NAFSA state meetings about the importance of being involved and advocating for international education.
Over the summer, Senator Vitter’s staffer called me to ask for a meeting at LSU since he was in Louisiana and wanted to continue the conversation we had started on Advocacy Day. More specifically, he wanted an update to help him prepare for the possible introduction of a comprehensive immigration reform bill. I invited two people to attend our meeting: My colleague, an international student advisor, and an international scholar from India in his post-six years of H-1B status. We discussed a range of immigration reform issues. It was particularly useful for the international scholar to attend because he put a real face and a real situation to otherwise general issues. He talked about maintaining immigration documents for over a decade; not being able to travel home at critical times; his inability to accept a promotion, change employers, and move to a different state; and other important issues. He helped summarize our desire to promote reforms that would help international scholars integrate and contribute to our campuses and communities; remove barriers to international travel which make it difficult for students and scholars to visit their families and maintain ties to their home countries; and promote job flexibility and a healthy quality of life.
I learned that the more I get involved in my work the more I learn. As an international scholar advisor I have been advocating for international education in the course of my work. I did not really need to go to Washington to be an advocate. But, my visit to Washington for NAFSA’s Advocacy Day helped me realize that, as a professional, I may be able to influence policy makers and legislative processes in many diverse ways. I am glad I attended, and I wholeheartedly encourage all my colleagues to jump at the opportunity to go.