I had the great pleasure of welcoming international education advocates representing 31 states and the District of Columbia, to Washington, DC, as part of NAFSA’s Advocacy Day last week.

There were many highlights to the program on the first day, including a new format for the newcomers briefing, which gave all first-time participants the opportunity to interact with colleagues from across the country to prepare for their meetings on the hill. During the general briefing, the Advocate of the Year Award was presented to DeDe Long of the University of Arkansas, for her work in engaging her elected officials and promoting policies that support international education and exchange.

Also during the general briefing, participants had the opportunity to hear from two White House officials about what the Obama Administration is doing to advance immigration reform and how individuals from across the country can help. Specifically, Advocacy Day participants were encouraged to host immigration roundtable events in our own communities.

The next day, Advocacy Day participants met with 100 congressional offices, discussing timely international education issues such as ensuring the global competence U.S. college graduates and the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

After Advocacy Day, we asked Meghan Cross to share her experience on the hill.

Empowering: that is Advocacy Day in a Word

By Meghan Cross

I would like to consider myself a good citizen: I don’t cause much trouble and I enjoy promoting cultural exchange. Prior to Advocacy Day, though, I wasn’t a particularly active citizen. Sure, I voted… in the presidential election. However, I have been so moved by what I learned and experienced in the past two days that I am not going to let another congressional election go by without letting my voice be heard. Because I learned that—yes, it sounds cheesy—I do have a voice. And it can be heard. And it was at Advocacy Day.

My region’s Advocacy Day travel grant enabled me to attend Advocacy Day. If you haven’t attended the event yet, I think you should apply for this grant next year from Region VI. If you feel like you do not know enough to become involved, then this is the perfect place for you. The NAFSA staff provides practical tools for normal people. For example, I learned that the best information a constituent (that’s you!) can bring to a congressional office is information you already have: a personal story. How doable does that seem?

After Tuesday’s day of training, it was time to go to the hill on Wednesday. I had three meetings with staff, in the offices of Senator Richard Lugar, Senator Dan Coats and Representative André Carson. I shared my personal story of how study abroad affected my entire undergraduate experience, as well as the story of another student I knew as an undergraduate who was not able to study abroad and would have benefitted from legislation such as the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Act. What stood out most for me was the surreal feeling that my voice was heard and my message would be passed along to people who have the power to make a difference.

In the span of two days, I gained skills that developed me professionally and personally. I feel engaged in the field of international education on a national level. I feel empowered as a citizen. And it feels good.

Meghan Cross is a NAFSA member and program advisor at Butler University Institute for Study Abroad in Indianapolis.