Students advocate, share their stories at Day at the Capitol

Last week, 49 St. Kate’s students participated in Day at the Capitol, sponsored by the Minnesota Private College Council (MPCC).

The objective of the day is to advocate for the Minnesota State Grant program. The grant offers key support for low and middle-income families, encourages Minnesotans to stay in-state for college, and helps students graduate on time. Nearly one-third (31 percent) of St. Kate’s undergrads receive state grant support, with an average award of $3,565.

The day started in “the vault,” tucked in a corner of the capitol basement. Here, policy experts from MPCC shared more specifics about the Minnesota State Grant program and how it impacts St. Kate’s students.

Rep. Dave Pinto, who represents the district that includes St. Kate’s, and Rep. Erin Murphy MAOL’05 met with the larger group to share their experiences and offer tips for meeting with lawmakers.

“Be positive and recognize that they’re crazy-busy, so stay focused,” said Pinto.

They each emphasized the importance of sharing personal stories.

“I will remember statistics, I think about the budget and the numbers, but when you tell me why and how the state grant program is helping you move forward in your career and what you’re going to do with that for Minnesota, that story is the thing that seals the deal for lawmakers like me,” explained Murphy.

She added that it’s okay to ask lawmakers the hard questions.

“You should nudge me a little to give you a commitment. I am one of 201 people who represent the interests of the people of Minnesota. If I don’t do my job well, Minnesota doesn’t do well,” she said.

Murphy ended the morning session by challenging students to run for public office. “It usually takes women seven or eight times of being asked before they think about running. It’s a powerful place to make change, to make a difference. We need more voices that look like you and me. So consider this one of your asks.”

Students then met with House and Senate members who either represented their campus or hometown. Duluth native Emily Bartlett ’20 met with Rep. Liz Olson and Senator Eric Simonson.

“I’m also a recipient of the State Grant, and if it wasn’t for this support, I wouldn’t be able to attend St. Kate’s. If I tell my story to legislators, it might help them understand the grant’s importance,” said Bartlett, a nursing major and active member of Student Senate and the Residence Hall Association

Two provisions in this year’s bills (HF 1430 and SF 1303) aim to reduce the burden of loan debt and increase student and family eligibility.

Biology major Heidi Holthus ’18 is encouraged by the proposed changes. “My family makes too much for me to qualify, but not enough to pay for my college. Anything to help lower that salary gap would be great.” Holthus met with Senator Michelle Benson ’91 who expressed support for the state grant because of the choice it offers students in where they attend college.

Day at the Capitol provided an eye-opening experience for many students who, like Zaynab Abdi ’20, noticed the lack of diversity among lawmakers.

“I was astonished to see so many white men in office,” said Abdi, a political science major. “I told myself that people like me — women and persons of color — need to run for office. Otherwise, other generations will feel the same disappointment I felt when they don't see themselves represented in our lawmakers.”

The historic highlight of the day was a meeting with Ilhan Omar, the nation’s first Somali-American legislator. While Abdi was the only St. Kate’s student scheduled for a meeting with her, Omar graciously welcomed nearly a dozen students from the Muslim Student Association to join them.

Student Senate External Affairs co-chairs Sagal Hadafow ’19 and Sara Kumerow ’19 organized logistics for St. Kate’s participation in the event — from the timeline and schedules to publicity and information sessions.

“They do a great job of helping their peers understand why the Minnesota State Grant program is so important, how it impacts our students, and the importance of having a socio-economically diverse student body,” said Beth Stevens, associate dean and campus legislative contact.

The day offers much more than advocacy for the state grant, adds Stevens. “It also teaches students how their voices can be heard effectively, how to engage with legislators, and how things work at the state capitol.”

This was one of four Day at the Capitol events for 2017, representing students from 13 Minnesota private colleges and universities. To stay up to date on policy efforts, visit MPCC’s Advocates for Minnesota Student Aid.

More photos from the day are on St. Kate's flickr site.

By Sharon Rolenc