UA students lobby, learn at the Capitol

Posted: Tuesday, February 26, 2002

An afternoon of lobbying by university students at the state Capitol on Monday was a lot like participating in a contortionist's act.

The students wedged themselves into cramped offices and squeezed their ideals amid the closely held beliefs of legislators or staffers with a dozen other appointments and many other concerns.

Dozens of University of Alaska students and alumni descended on the Capitol to lobby for increased funding for the university system. They carried yellow hard hats to advertise their theme, "Minds at Work."

"I'm feeling like I can make a difference," said Beth Strange, who takes classes by distance at the University of Alaska Southeast and in person at Kenai Peninsula College, after her first round of lobbying. "I never felt that way before."

The students who gathered at the Capitol - following a weekend of organizing at the UAS campus - represented a wide range of UA campuses and areas of study. Fairbanks freshmen lobbied alongside Southeast seniors; prospective politicians intermingled with teachers in training.

About 15 students participated in the "UA Roadshow," a five-day, 2,500-mile van journey that started at the University of Alaska Fairbanks last Tuesday and ended up in Juneau early Saturday. Along the way, the students rallied support at UA campuses in Anchorage, in the Mat-Su valleys and on the Kenai Peninsula.

They were pushing for support of an increase of $16.9 million in the university system's operating budget for the next fiscal year.

Those who gathered at the Capitol said they came because they have a vested interest in the university's success.

"I'm a student. I go to school here; I live here; I work here. The university is a part of my life and I want to see it succeed," said Jeff Quick, a student senator at UAS.

After conducting an early afternoon press conference, the students dispersed into groups of six to eight to go to scheduled appointments with legislators or their aides.

During the visits, some legislators and staffers engaged in fact-finding; others wanted to learn about the students' backgrounds and how the university was serving them. Some queried the students to see if they would be willing to rally support for using taxes or portions of the permanent fund to cover the fiscal gap, rather than see cuts in state spending.

"I've been asking people, if you're asking for money, are you willing to pay," Rep. Jeannette James, a North Pole Republican, told the students.

While much of the focus is on educating the legislators, Quick said it is just as vital for the students to learn from the people they talk to.

"Our most important job is finding out where they stand on an issue," he said. "Once we find out where they stand, (we can) get their concerns (and) get their feelings on where we, as students, can help."

Students said they were generally pleased with their reception from legislators.

"They are dealing with pretty big financial issues (but) we've had a lot of support," said David Parks, vice president of the Union of Students of the University of Alaska Anchorage. "Every vote counts, every voice is heard. They're willing to listen."

The students will continue their efforts today before heading back to their respective campuses. Quick said he has been encouraged so far, but only time will tell if it leads to favorable results for the university system.

"It's really great to see so many people who are so eager to support this cause," he said. "It will be even better if our efforts succeed."

Andrew Krueger can be reached at akrueger@juneauempire.com.



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