Advocating for International Education in Washington, DC

The author of this blog post was awarded a travel grant to attend an advocacy conference in Washington, DC. This opportunity was available as part of the ASA Advocacy program. If you wish to see more opportunities for ASA members like this, please consider donating to the 60th Anniversary Campaign to support this, and other strategic initiatives.

By Andreana Prichard

In late February, I received word from the ASA that I had received one of two $1000 travel subsidy grants to travel to D.C. to attend one of three advocacy conferences geared toward supporting international education and humanities. I had seen the call earlier in the month, but I didn’t take it seriously as something that I could do until my colleague noted that the ASA was looking for advocates from Oklahoma and encouraged me to apply. I had done some local-level advocacy before applying: I’m involved with our neighborhood association and have done trainings with the Neighborhood Alliance of Central Oklahoma; I have started attending ward and town hall meetings, and even speaking at some; and I speak with our Police Community Relations officer about issues concerning our neighborhood probably more often than he would like. I’d also recently started making daily calls to legislators, signing petitions that come through my inbox and over Facebook, and sending postcards. But doing in-person advocacy on a national level was entirely new to me.

But even though I had never spoken to legislators either in Oklahoma City or in Washington, D.C., I knew that I have a lot to say about the value of international education and the humanities. We see it in our daily lives as educators, and live lives made richer by our understanding of and engagement with the rich, complex, and nuanced world around us. And, I have lot of anecdotes about how area studies, study abroad, and language study have shaped the lives of students I’ve taught. I talk all the time about one of my first-generation students, a young woman who had never left the state, who traveled with me to Tanzania and is now studying international public health and Kiswahili at UCLA and interning in Nairobi, Kenya. 

So, I applied for support to attend the Coalition for International Education Title VI/Fulbright-Hays Advocacy Conference March 8-9. The conference would consist of a one day conference focused on advocacy strategies, information about federal funding, and program specifics, as well as a day on Capitol Hill to meet with elected officials. I was swamped with reviewing Fulbright-Hays Seminar Abroad applications and packing for a research trip to Kenya, so fortunately I didn’t have much time to worry about how I was going to talk to the elected officials of my very red state, or what I would say to them. I decided to trust that the conference would prepare me in terms of content, and that I would be able to come up with some personal anecdotes to flesh out the data over the next two weeks.

Fortunately, I was right. The Coalition for International Education Title VI/Fulbright-Hays Advocacy Conference was organized by Miriam Kazanjian from CIE and members of the Elliott School of International Affairs. Kazanjian and her colleagues provided a comprehensive overview of CIE (of which the African Studies Association is a member) and its work, of the programs on behalf of which we were in town to advocate, and of our “ask.”

My colleagues and I were focused on two programs in particular: the Higher Education Act/Title VI and its overseas component, the Fulbright-Hays programs. Included in the Fulbright-Hays program is the Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad (DDRA) grant, the Group Projects Abroad (GPA) grant, and the Seminars Abroad (SA) grant. As a recipient of the first and as a peer reviewer for the latter two, I can attest that these programs are absolutely fundamental to ensuring Americans’ international competency, fluency, and expertise. Six programs are currently funded under Title VI: National Resource Centers (NRC), Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS), Language Resource Centers (LRC), Centers for International Business Education and Research (CIBER), American Overseas Research Centers (AORC), and the Undergraduate International Studies and Foreign Language Program (UISFL).

Specifically, we were advocating for two related issues: First, we were asking for a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act—Title VI. Ideally, the reauthorization of the HEA would extend all six currently funded programs intact, maintaining a steady supply of deep language and area studies expertise. Additionally, we proposed several of the five unfunded Title VI programs be consolidated and streamlined into two reformed sections that would address 21st century needs for innovative educational strategies promoting basic global competencies.

Second, we were asking that as legislators draft their Fiscal Year 2018 appropriations bills, that they include at least $72.16 million for International Education and Foreign Language Studies, $65.1 million for HEA-Title VI, and $7.06 million for Fulbright-Hays programs. We urged continued funding for these programs in the final FY 2017 or CR at the House FY 2017 bill levels, the same as Congress provided in FY 2016. The U.S. Department of Education International Education and Foreign Language Studies Programs are funded under the Labor, Health & Human Services, and Education appropriations bill, which is Chaired by my representative from Oklahoma, Representative Tom Cole. Funding for these programs represents just roughly 0.1% of the Department’s discretionary budget.

We also heard from Federal Relations Officers from several local universities. As a faculty member, I wasn’t aware of the work that Federal Relations Officers do. Many of these officers are former lobbyists or legislative staffers, and they now work for universities representing their priorities and interests to legislators. On the advice of the ASA and CIE, I’d set up an appointment with the Federal Relations Officer at the University of Oklahoma. Scott Mason talked with me about OU’s priorities and gave me some intelligent and helpful tips for speaking with our particular legislators. He also worked with OU’s lobbyist to set up appointments for me on the Hill. The officers who spoke at the conference offered additional suggestions about how to speak with legislators and their staffers, effective strategies for dealing with offices of varying degrees of receptiveness to our “ask” and message, and some perspective about the particular issues we’d be discussing.

While I’d long been convinced of the importance of area studies and language programs, the briefing further solidified how absolutely vital these two programs are in ensuring Americans’ engagement in the world around us. These programs produce deep expertise in all the world’s regions, in international businesses, and over 200 foreign languages, and at all levels of education. Recipients of this funding fill high-skill positions, and many graduates go on to careers in the government including at the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, NASA, NSA, Commerce and USAID, among others. These grants broaden access to “less commonly taught” languages, and they stimulate economic growth and job creation. Yet, these programs are increasingly underfunded. This places us at a disadvantage in areas such as defense, an area of keen interest for the current administration: In Fiscal Year 2011, only 28% of the foreign language positions in the Department of Defense were filled with personnel at the required proficiency level.

Beyond facing cuts, these programs are now at risk of complete elimination. The President’s blueprint budget proposes $59 billion for the Department of Education's discretionary budget, a $9 billion or 13% cut. Trump’s proposal would eliminate or reduce 20 categorical programs that "do not address national needs, duplicate other programs, or are more appropriately supported with State, local or private funds," including International Education programs, among others. Kazanjian and others fear that the Title VI/Fulbright-Hays programs could be cut entirely.

As I sat on a bench in the park in front of the Capitol waiting for my meetings with staffers in the offices of Senator Inhofe and Representative Tom Cole, I was incredibly nervous. But, after clearing the security check point at the entrance to the Russell Senate Office Building I quickly felt more at ease. The marble hallways were stacked with office furniture signaling the transition, there were advocates from every walk of life leaning against the walls waiting for appointments, and, except for the American and state flags, it would be easy to mistake the marble halls for our familiar university corridors. When I walked through the open door into Inhofe’s office for my first meeting, I was greeted enthusiastically by a recent OU graduate. We chatted easily about her undergraduate soccer career. The office, while nicely appointed, was much more modest than I had imagined. By the time the staffer arrived for our appointment, I felt entirely comfortable and ready to tell him why I had flown all the way to D.C.

While Inhofe and I might not share all of the same priorities, his staffer listened attentively to my pitch, asked interesting questions, and shared with me that Inhofe had traveled to the continent numerous times over the last thirty years. We spoke for nearly thirty minutes, and I promised to follow up with the “Dear Colleague” letter we asked our representatives to sign.

I didn’t have a formal appointment with staffers in Representative Tom Cole’s office, but since he was the Chairman of the Appropriations committee I decided I would drop into his office and leave him some written materials. I’m glad I did, because I had an encouraging chat with his Deputy Chief of Staff and left with contact information for his education staffer. I’ve since heard from the staffer, who has asked for more information for the appropriations committee. I’m told this is an encouraging sign.

I left the Rayburn House Office building feeling excited and empowered. I learned I didn’t need special training or a certain personality to talk to representatives, only an issue in which I felt strongly and for which I was prepared to advocate.

I also left with some helpful tips about how to communicate with legislators:
-Face-to-face visits are the most effective, either in D.C., in state capitols, or in representatives offices or town hall meetings
-Second are emails and faxes (who knew?!)
-On-line petitions can be powerful, but postcard campaigns are less so
-Phone calls are important, but are often not properly recorded and may only be shared with the legislator after a target number of calls is reached
-Letters, particularly for time-sensitive issues, take too long to wind their way to offices

And, I left with an action plan:
Given the Administration's proposal to eliminate Title VI/Fulbright-Hays programs in the FY 2018 budget, the National Humanities Alliance has collaborated with the Coalition for International Education to set up an Action Alert specifically for these programs. Please ask everyone you know and work with to write to their Congressional Representatives here: http://p2a.co/7olnROm  

Many thanks to the ASA for this opportunity and to CIE/Fulbright-Hays and Miriam Kazanjian for the conference and talking points shared above. I hope this has been helpful in illustrating how easy and important it is to get involved in advocacy at all levels.

Andreana Prichard, PhD
Wick Cary Assistant Professor of Honors and African History
Honors College
University of Oklahoma