March 3, 2016

Students advocate for financial aid in halls of Congress

Cornell students pose with U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, in Washington, D.C. The students were in Washington for the annual Student Advocacy Day when they speak to members of Congress about the value of student aid.

On March 1, 20 Cornell students piled into a bus headed for the halls of Congress. They were on a mission.

As recipients of student aid, they wanted to share their stories with members of Congress and their staff, to thank them for supporting student aid and to encourage them to continue to do so. They were in Washington, D.C., for Student Advocacy Day, a spring tradition where Cornell students have the opportunity to influence Congress. Before arriving on the Hill, they were briefed on the nuances of government financial aid by Kristen Adams, associate director of Cornell’s Office of Federal Relations, who organized this year’s program.

“This year we had a great group of students whose stories resonated in over thirty Congressional offices,” said Adams.

The students – freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors – represented 12 U.S. states. While most of them didn’t know each other before the trip, they came to Washington with a common message. “We are the flesh-and-blood return on [Congress’] investment,” said Daniel Correa ’19.

The students spent the night of March 1 at the Cornell in Washington program residence hall to prepare for their day in Congress. On March 2 they hiked to Capitol Hill, where they logged about five miles, meeting members of Congress and their staff. They visited the offices of Sens. Mark Kirk (IL), Chuck Schumer (NY), Marco Rubio (FL), John Cornyn (TX), Ron Wyden (OR), Robert Menendez (NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Barbara Mukulski (MD), Bill Nelson (FL), Jeff Flake (AZ), Jeff Merkley (OR), Chris Murphy (CT), Jack Reed(RI), Cory Booker (NJ), Ted Cruz (TX), Ben Cardin (MD) and Barbara Boxer (CA). They also met with the offices of Reps. John Culberson (TX), Hakeem Jeffries (NY), Dennis Ross (FL), Bob Dold (IL), Chris Collins (NY), Donna Edwards (MD), Greg Walden (OR), Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ), Mario Diaz-Balart (FL), Lee Zeldin (NY), Matt Salmon (AZ), Dutch Ruppersberger (MD), David Cicilline (RI), Rosa DeLauro (CT) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL). In many cases they met with the representatives and senators themselves.

As the students told their stories, a common thread emerged. These were, Correa said, “a diverse group of driven individuals,” who have benefited greatly from financial aid. Jaylexia Clark, a freshman pre-law student who hopes to run for Congress one day, said, “Without this help I’d be in community college.”

Tatiana Guzman, who hopes to one day join the Peace Corps and get her doctorate said, “I wouldn’t go to Cornell if it weren’t for financial aid. I ended up at my dream school.”

Guzman described her day in Congress as an “amazing opportunity. How often do you get to go to Capitol Hill and talk to a senator?”

Jackie Joya ’16 agreed. It was the chance to “have my voice heard” that attracted her to this annual event, she said. Joya said her dream of becoming a veterinarian would never be realized without aid.

“It’s empowering to have your voice heard,” Correa said, noting, “It’s my way to give thanks, by advocating.”

“The student’s stories represent the powerful impact federal policy has on the futures of individuals and their families,” said Adams. “Members of Congress and their staff welcomed our students warmly and appreciated their advocacy.” 

Many staff and members of Congress encouraged the students to continue their advocacy.

At the end of the day the students came together on the steps of the Capitol, where they met with Cornell’s congressman, U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, who praised their efforts.

Said Dianne Miller, director of Federal Relations, “Our students were poised, passionate and all-around excellent representatives of Cornell.”

Kathleen Corcoran is a Cornell media relations officer based in Washington, D.C.