When it comes to improving access to higher education, youth voices matter; but too often young people are not consulted on the issues that impact them most. How can youth organizations and the young people they serve work together as advocates for policy reform?
This question was at the heart of a recent grant competition offered by the National College Attainment Network (NCAN) to its member organizations. Among those to receive support was the Woodward Hines Education Foundation (WHEF).
“The grant has allowed us to engage more deeply in state and federal policy advocacy, while looking for ways to empower student voices in Mississippi,” says WHEF Assistant Director and Project Manager Kierstan Dufour.
A key component of the grant was engaging a youth Fellow to advance WHEF and NCAN’s goal of closing equity gaps in higher education. That honor went to Vonkerius (Von) Jackson, a junior at University of Mississippi. A political science major, Von had experience leading campaigns at his high school in Indianola in the Mississippi Delta. He was also well-aware of the barriers that students with limited financial means need to overcome in accessing higher education in Mississippi, which costs an average of $22,000 annually at a public four-year institution.
In March, Von and two WHEF staff traveled to Washington, DC to attend an NCAN advocacy training and learn about its policy priorities. High on the list was streamlining and simplifying the process students go through in applying for federal student aid through FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), and increasing support for Federal Pell Grants, made available for students with financial need.
The NCAN training taught the WHEF team how to tailor their message to get through to busy decision-makers. They then made their case to Mississippi legislators on Capitol Hill. For his part, Von shared his journey as a successful student from an underserved community, who had benefited directly from state and federal aid, such as the Pell Grant program.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” says Von, who developed a special rapport with staff at Congressman Bennie Thompson’s office, representing his home district. “It felt like more of a conversation than a meeting,” he says. “We talked about how to get people excited to participate in policy reform.”
When the trio returned home, the COVID pandemic prohibited face-to-face meetings so Von continued his outreach virtually, with support from the WHEF team. He met with diverse stakeholders, including lobbyists, government affairs spokespeople, the Director of the Mississippi Office of Student Financial Aid, and staff at Institutions for Higher Learning. He took care to research in advance the role and agenda of those he was meeting with. “We wanted him to understand how to change your messaging depending on who you’re talking to,” says Dufour. At the same time, there’s nothing like sharing an authentic story based on personal experience, she adds.
With the NCAN grant now nearing completion, WHEF is exploring what a broader youth engagement strategy might look like. As for Von, he’s writing a series of blog posts on his financial aid journey and could see returning to Capitol Hill in a professional capacity someday to “work for a representative I could be proud of,” he says.