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SBU Students on Capitol Hill

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Three Stony Brook University graduate students — Tiffany Victor, Joseph Verardo and Vahideh Rasekhi — met with the staff members of Senator Charles Schumer, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Congressman Lee Zeldin and Congresswoman Nita Lowey as part of the NAGPS Graduate Students Legislative Action Day in Washington, D.C., on September 12.

Twice a year, the Graduate Student Organization partners with the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (NAGPS) for the NAGPS’ Advocacy Summit and Legislative Action Days. The Summit gathers student leaders from across the country for a two-day seminar and a day on the Hill meeting with policymakers about issues in higher education. On their recent advocacy day, they discussed important issues including STEM funding and also funding for the social sciences, open access to federally funded research, international visa concerns, student loans and interest rates.

GSO students_DC
From left to right: Tiffany Victor, Joseph Verardo and Vahideh Rasekhi on Capitol Hill for Graduate Students Legislative Action Day.

“I had the opportunity to speak with policymakers on the importance of funding for the social sciences and its importance in addressing many of the issues that occupy public discourse. Major debate topics including crime, poverty, extremism, economics and the dissemination of life-saving treatments are addressed through research in the social sciences,” said Joseph Verardo, GSO treasurer and director of finance for the NAGPS.

“There are scientific solutions to be discovered and data-driven recommendations to solving these problems. However, every election cycle we hear the same issues and same talking points being debated from both parties, with little progress being made. It was encouraging to be able to voice this to policymakers and open up that dialog with them on these issues,”Verardo added.

“International students make up the largest population of students at graduate schools. They conduct research and contribute to the sciences, technology, engineering and medicine fields. Graduate students play a key role in the quality of programs and university rankings, and attract top faculty,” said Vahideh Rasekhi, president of GSO and PhD candidate in linguistics. “International students also add diversity, culture and perspective to universities.

“Unfortunately, due to visa renewal issues, some of the graduate students cannot visit their families during their studies since it is unpredictable how long the visa renewal process will take. If their visa is not ready on time, their research will be interrupted and their colleagues in the lab will have to do more work. In addition, this issue prevents them from presenting their scholarly work abroad at prestigious conferences,” said Rasekhi. “At our meetings with the Senators and Congress people, we requested them to sponsor and pass legislation for the domestic renewal of F-1 visas. We hope that the international students’ visa renewal policy will be changed to allow them to visit their families while conducting their research and to be able to present their research internationally.”

Tiffany Victor, vice president of GSO and doctoral candidate in the Department of Chemistry stated, “We encouraged support and sponsorship for Fair Access to Federally Funded Research Act (FASTR – H.R. 1477 and S. 779).” The simple premise of FASTR is that taxpayers who pay for federally funded research should be able to access it more easily. Under FASTR, every federal agency that spends more than $100 million on grants for research would be required to adopt an open access policy that gives the public access to all research no later than 12 months after publication.

There’s already a White House Office of Science and Technology memo that requires agencies to develop public access policies, but White House directives don’t carry the force of laws. That’s why it’s essential to lock an open access policy into law. Research is funded with the expectation that new ideas and discoveries from the research will improve the lives and well-being of individuals, as well as stimulate the economy. However, that innovation stalls when the outcomes of these research findings become harder to access by students, small businesses and the public.

Victor said that the experience was different — a step outside her comfort zone. “In the end it felt great knowing that I was advocating on behalf of colleagues to get support and co-sponsorship on important legislation that affects graduate education and graduate students. It wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be. The staffers were very cordial and receptive to what we had to share. The most difficult part was trying to arrive on time from meeting to meeting.”

“We want to thank Lauren Brookmeyer, director of Government Relations at Stony Brook, for her help and support in scheduling these meetings and helping us make this trip a success.”

GSO to Host NAGPS Conference in November
From November 3 to 6, the Graduate Student Organization will be hosting the NAGPS 30th National Conference, which will involve graduate and professional students from across the country. It will focus on advocacy, leadership techniques, the sharing of best practices and legislative affairs pertaining to higher education.

“We have an amazing conference planned,” said Verardo. “It will focus on teaching advocacy, leadership and empowering student leaders from across the country. We want our guests to acquire skills needed to take up leadership roles in their communities, network with their peers from across the United States, and also grow professionally as emerging leaders capable of addressing some of the pressing issues of our time. The GSO is excited to be hosting this conference.”

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