A semester’s worth of hard work and diligent research paid off when 14 senior social work majors journeyed to Washington D.C. on March 17 to meet with members of the United States Senate and discuss pieces of legislation they were passionate about.
The students presented policy briefs to the staffers of Tennessee Senator Bob Corker that dealt with federal policy on gun control, made prevalent by the recent Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, and other pertinent social welfare issues such as federal salaries, mental health care reform, and accountability of law enforcement officers. The goal of the trip was to help the students see policy in action through experiential learning.
“We got to see that you don’t have to be prominent in society to push for the passing of legislature,” said Morris Liddell, a senior social work major. “Regular civilians have the ability to make a difference.”
The annual trip was all part of the Social Welfare Issues and Policy class, taught by Kristie Wilder, associate professor of social work. The seniors spent numerous weeks discussing social welfare issues, compiling policy briefs, and researching various social topics in anticipation of their D.C. trip.
“My biggest take away is seeing the students have ‘ah-ha!’ moments,” Wilder said. “It’s that moment when what I’ve been saying in the classroom starts to make sense to the students as they see how it all applies in the real world.”
The students paired into four different groups, each of which spent about 10 minutes addressing a specific issue. Each group used its time to recommend solutions for fixing gaps found in a particular policy or to present statistics that advocated moving forward with a particular policy.
"I felt really prepared," said Yeshara Acosta, a senior social work and international studies major. "I started to think that this was something I could do as a career."
Wilder appreciated that Corker’s staffers were careful listeners.
“They know where their votes come from,” Wilder said. “The more people they hear from and get a consensus from makes an impact because it is added to all of the other voices that are speaking out.”
This year, the students were given the opportunity to sit down with a lobbyist from the Council on Social Work Education, who helped them prepare for their presentations with the staffers. Wilder said she plans to make the collaboration a permanent part of the itinerary for future classes because of the positive effect it had on the students.
"The lobbyist was probably the biggest help in preparation," Acosta said. "She told us what to expect and helped me understand what was going to happen."
Though they did not present their research to the senator himself, the students were able to speak with Tennessee Senator Bob Corker at Tennessee Tuesday in the Dirksen Senate Building. They also spoke with Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander.
In addition to discussing legislation, the social work students were able to visit the Library of Congress, tour the Capitol Building, and attend the U.S. Supreme Court Oral Arguments. The patriotic scenery made Tania Barry, senior social work major, feel honored to be in “the highest court in the land.”
“I gained a sense of renewed pride in my country,” Barry said. “I was shown an up-close view of our government, revealing to me how easy and necessary it is for the common man to be involved.”
The students were also able to visit the headquarters for the National Association of Social Workers, which exposed them to new career options.
“Southern students had a chance to find out how to become staffers in the U.S. Congress or registered lobbyists,” Wilder said. “We don’t feel that we have enough social workers in that area.”
More than anything, Wilder hopes the trip helped the students realize that they have a tremendous role to play in the world of politics.
"As social workers, we have information that is sometimes left out of policy conversations," Wilder said. "We see our role as being essential because we don’t just work with individuals, we work with their environments, their communities, and their laws.”