Like many of you, I tuned in to watch the State of the Union address last week. One thing that struck me was when President Obama said that “no matter what party they belong to, I bet most Americans are thinking the same thing right now: Nothing will get done this year, or next year, or maybe even the year after that, because Washington is broken.” This made me think about the work we will need to do together to support international education in the coming year.

Looking back on the first session of the 112th Congress, it’s hard to dispute its low approval rating (currently 11%, the lowest since Gallup began asking the question more than three decades ago). In 2011, there were about 5,655 bills introduced in both chambers of Congress. Of the 5,655, 80 were actually passed into law (1.4%), and of the 80 passed, 17 (21%) were things like appointments and laws naming buildings, roads, etc. Policymaking too often took a back seat to partisanship and politics, making legislative progress glacial, if not impossible.

Late last year in Washington, D.C., a former congressman noted that 2012 is not likely going to be a year of tackling big issues in Congress, but that it does provide a prime opportunity for advocates to educate Congress on the issues that are important to Americans. The reality is that even the most seasoned policy wonks in Washington don’t know what will or won’t get done this year – we never know when the moment will come that Congress takes action on an issue that is of critical importance to our community. As advocates, our job is to lay the groundwork, keep up the pressure, and help educate our colleagues, friends, and policy makers about the issues, no matter the political environment.

It is vital that we keep raising our voices to make sure our elected officials hear a narrative about international education that reflects our experience, our knowledge, and our values. Below is a list of quick and easy things you can do to help engage your elected officials in conversations around issues that matter to you.

  1. Join Connecting Our World and invite others to join as well. Connecting Our World (CoWorld) is a grassroots community of people who believe in the importance of international education or have been positively impacted by some aspect of it. It is a growing movement of advocates who speak out about public policies that affect international education. CoWorld members receive messages that keep them up-to-date on the issues, and are called to action throughout the year to write to their elected officials.
  2. If you have a Facebook or Twitter account, “like” and/or start following your members of Congress, and add comments to their pages when the opportunity arises. Bradford Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, told me a story about a meeting he had recently with a congressional office. The staffer said that when something new is posted to the congressman’s Facebook page and there are at least 10-20 comments from constituents in response, she takes those comments into consideration when presenting information to her boss about voters’ reactions to the issue.
  3. Utilize the new mobile Take Action Center. Starting this year, we will post all action alerts on our new mobile Take Action Center. This will make it quicker and easier for you to take action while waiting in line for coffee, during your lunch break, or when you’re heading out of the office for the night.
  4. Start preparing for the 2012 election.We recently launched a “2012 Elections” page on CoWorld that gives you a checklist of things to do to prepare to vote (both domestically and overseas), find information about the candidates, and much more. If you are in a position where you advise students, this is a great tool to share with them in preparing to vote.
  5. Share your stories with us. Visit the Share Your Story page on Connecting Our World to share your thoughts about real-life students and scholars and their experiences studying abroad or in the United States.
  6. Participate in Advocacy Day. Advocacy Day provides a great opportunity to develop a relationship with your members of Congress and their staff by making a personal visit to their office to share stories about the impact of policymaking in your community, as well as valuable and timely information that illustrates the importance of international education in their state and district. Additional information can be found on the Advocacy Day Web page.

While we may not see as much forward movement on big issues in Congress this year as we would like, I’m confident that all international educators will be able to make a difference by using this year to educate policymakers on why international education matters and why it needs to be a priority for the country. By working together to educate Congress and to lay the groundwork, we’ll be poised to seize the day when the environment shifts and the policies we’ve been advocating for can move forward.