On December 1, nine sleepy but nervous students and my sleepy but nervous colleague and I drove to Washington DC to meet with US Senators and Representatives about issues that matter to women in mathematics and other STEM fields. As part of the AWM Hill Visits program, Association for Women in Mathematics leadership, members from academia and industry, and members of the Villanova Student Chapter of the AWM teamed up to visit with over twenty legislative offices during the day. Visiting legislators from our home states, as well as those with connections to AWM members and priorities, our groups shared the AWM’s policy agenda with lawmakers and lobbied for support of several bills. And, I must say, we had an incredible time in the process.
Our top legislative priority was the Women and Minorities in STEM Booster Act of 2016, which would require the National Science Foundation to award competitive grants to activities that would increase participation of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM, and will need to be reintroduced in the new congress. AWM members also spoke in support of the Computer Science for All Initiative, the INSPIRE Women Act, directing NASA to support STEM initiatives for women and girls, and the Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act, which would amend the Higher Education Act to require that sexual harassment by Principal Investigators to be reported to funding agencies, and that harassment reports be considered when awarding federal funding.
This legislation addresses issues that are very dear to my heart, and lobbying for it was a phenomenal and exciting experience. However, my December 1 started at a very non-exciting 4 AM, when my alarm went off and I blinked myself awake in the dark of Katie Haymaker’s spare room. Out of bed and off to pick up donuts, the van and nine Villanova students. By 5:30 and after a few predictable hitches we were on the road to Washington DC, me driving a twelve passenger van as fast as was safe through the darkness and eventual sunrise. This was an adventure, not least because I gave up my car when I moved to Philly in 2014. No need tell the students I hadn’t driven in quite a while, right?
We were of course running late, but reached Capitol Hill in time for me to drop Katie and the students off within striking distance of the Russell Senate Building, where they attended a constituent coffee with Senator Robert Casey (D, PA). They were joined by Dr. Kristin Lauter and Dr. Ami Radunskaya, President and President Elect of the AWM. I was sorry to miss out, but someone had to park the van. My students told me that they were immediately impressed with how Kristin managed to get right to the point and tell the Senator about the AWM’s priorities. Having seen Kristin’s legendary effectiveness in action, I can imagine that Senator Casey is now totally excited about these bills.
But back to the van: there is nowhere to park in DC. Just saying. Luckily, Dr. Karoline Pershell offered to let us park it in her driveway. Karoline met me at the curb and we headed off to catch the Metro back to the Senate building. Karoline is also a force of nature. As a former AAAS/AMS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, she really knew how to make contact and navigate the Hill. Her efforts and experience were instrumental in planning the trip and researching the bills that we talked about with the legislators. Karoline had made a great impression on the students in her group in the emails and conference calls that lead up to our adventure. “She just got married last week and she still did so much to get us ready for this! And she had a Harry Potter and Star Wars themed wedding!” a student told me in the van on the way down. I had never met Karoline before, but I was already prepared to think she was awesome. And indeed she was.
So much work, by so many people, went into this trip. I really should have started this story in the weeks before the visit, with the mountains of emails and planning that put it together. The trip began with an invitation from Dr. Gail Letzter, Dr. Karen Saxe, and Dr. Julie Sutton, members of the AWM Policy and Advocacy Committee. They began the Hill Visits program in 2015. We were the second group of students to take part. They put together a great roster of non-student AWM members and divided us into groups. We then began trying to schedule appointments. First of all, I had no idea until we started working on this that you could just do that. In fact, people can just call legislative offices and ask for a meeting. And that’s what we did. Though it turns out that persistence is key, the meeting will be about 10 minutes long, and you will most likely meet with a staffer. However, 10 minutes are all you need, the education and science/research specialists are the ones who advise the legislators on these areas, and the staff members we met were generally very kind and attentive.
Groups met a lot of education and science/research specialists, including staff working for Tim Kaine, Richard Durbin, Elizabeth Warren, and Al Franken. Though the majority of the visits were with Democratic lawmakers, the offices of Representatives Pat Meehan (R, PA) and Charles Dent (R, PA) also agreed to meet with AWM members Dr. Betty Mayfield, Katie, and I, and expressed interest in the AWM priorities. Overall, many offices were supportive of the legislation and expressed their interest in meeting with students in particular.
Amazingly, the groups did meet in-person with several legislators, from both the House and Senate. Dr. Michelle Snider, Dr. Adele Merritt, Villanova Juniors Madison Taylor and Alexandra Golia, and many others met with Representative Jackie Speier (D, CA), sponsor of the Accountability Act. Snider and Taylor were joined by Kristin Lauter, Ami Radunskaya, and Villanova Seniors Katie Robbins and Patrick Saulino for a meeting with Representative Leonard Lance (R, NJ). All nine Villanova students, Katie Haymaker, and the AWM leaders all met with Senator Robert Casey (D, PA) for the constituent coffee I mentioned earlier. Katie and I also met with Representative Dwight Evans (D, PA). This was such a cool experience for me! We were Representative Evans first constituent meeting, and he asked us how we got into math. He was fresh off the floor, where he had given his first speech, so he was briefly distracted by CSPAN, but he was very gracious and expressed support for the AWM’s agenda.
The students came away with a sense of hope for the future of women in mathematics. Katie Robbins said, “It was a privilege to attend this trip and meet both non-student members of AWM as well as individuals from Capitol Hill. I felt as though our advocacy was well received by those we spoke with, and I am hopeful for the future of women in STEM fields.” Villanova Junior Shantel Silva said, “sometimes it feels as though there is a big disconnect between the nation’s government and its constituents; spending a day on the Hill gave me a little bit of hope that as citizens, we do have the possibility to affect what happens on the Hill.” Non-student mathematicians were also inspired. Dr. Snider said that meeting with Representative Speier in particular “gave me so much hope, meeting women who are in positions of power who feel strongly about fighting for our rights.”
The students seemed really pleased to have the opportunity to connect with women mathematicians from a range of careers. “The experience turned out to be extremely rewarding and educational.… It was wonderful to be able to meet women who have been successful in their mathematics careers and learn from their experiences,” according to Villanova Junior Tasha Boland. Boland and Silva’s group included Karoline Pershell, Sophomore Madison Davis, and Dr. Evelyn Sander. Villanova Freshman Megan Donofrio was very happy, “to be able to speak with members of congress about my background and passion for math and other STEM fields. I had never done anything like this before; it was such a unique special opportunity.” Donofrio and fellow Freshman Kristen Austin teamed with Dr. Talitha Washington to meet with several congressional offices. “It was a wonderful experience to spend a day with such strong female mathematician role models and fight for something I am so passionate about. This is definitely an experience I will never forget,” Austin said.
This trip was a meaningful experience for me as well. Not only did I get to talk to legislators and make my voice heard on issues I care deeply about, but I met so many awesome math women and had the chance to see my students really shine as awesome math women (and one awesome math man) themselves. I was proud of them, and also glad that they wouldn’t have to wait as long as I did to realize that a trip like this was possible. They will carry this knowledge with them into whatever they decide to do. This is the kind of thing that I want to give my students. It was worth all the emails, the 4 AM alarm, the six hours of driving. I would do it every week if I could give all of my students the same opportunity. I mean, I couldn’t do it everyday, because I’d collapse. But every week for sure.
The Hill Visits program is open to all AWM student chapters, and also welcomes non-student volunteers to participate in the visits. Ideas on lobbying Congress? Want to take another math agenda to the Hill? Let me know about it in the comments.