Last month, a group of nine school counseling students and one school psychology student, along with Patrick Mullen, assistant professor of counselor education, and Johnston Brendel, clinical associate professor of counselor education, traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with legislators and advocate for students and the school counseling and psychology professions.
Planning for the trip grew as a part of a course on advanced issues in school counseling which Mullen was teaching this past spring. The course emphasizes the importance of legislative advocacy, in which school counselors discuss issues that affect K-12 students, their families and the profession. Mullen wanted to give students a firsthand experience and collaborated with fellow faculty members to make it happen.
“In my experience, many school counselors have never considered contacting politicians or advocating around issues related to the profession,” said Mullen. “By providing students with the opportunity for a structured advocacy experience, they’re hopefully more likely to impact the profession and take on a leadership role by continuing to advocate as professionals.”
The trip started with a briefing at the W&M Washington Center with Amanda Fitzgerald, the public policy chair for the American School Counselor Association. Following the briefing, students traveled to Capitol Hill for meetings with staffers for Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner and Representatives Dave Brat and Rob Wittman. The group of students and faculty also met with representatives from the Department of Education.
“It is such a privilege to live in a country where we have free access to our representatives, and this trip was an important reminder of that for me,” said Samantha Adolphsen, a third-year student in the school psychology program. “The staffers we met with were welcoming and willing to listen, and it was so exciting to talk with them about what we’re are passionate about.”
With the fiscal year 2018 federal budget under discussion, students took the opportunity to discuss specific ways that school counselors support students and the vital support provided by funding in Title IV, Part A of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
Students also discussed the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program, advocating that it be expanded beyond classroom teachers to include all education professionals, including school counselors, school psychologists and social workers.
“It was a total rush being in the meetings and feeling like the expert as we discussed school counseling and the legislation we brought to the table,” said Jessica Bourneuf, who just graduated with her master’s in school counseling. “It is absolutely crucial to have counselors who are on the ground level of the profession learning about the bigger picture issues and expanding awareness about the field.”
Coming just a few weeks before many of the students were due to graduate, the trip was both celebration and learning experience. For Brendel and Mullen, the trip provided the chance to see students in action. “I sat back in amazement as I watched the students skillfully build persuasive arguments for legislative support for public education initiatives,” said Brendel.
“We have the ability to affect change, we just need to take the opportunity to do it,” said Adolphsen. “This trip showed me how possible it is to get involved and make a difference.”