By Shelby Peck | Staff Writer
For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, seven student government members traveled to Washington, D.C., to host the nationally collaborative Big 12 conference, Big 12 on the Hill, with hopes to increase mental health awareness and tuition accessibility.
Baylor hosted the 15 Big 12 schools on Capitol Hill over spring break by forming lobbying groups and holding group dinners. Not only did current Big 12 institutions such as the University of Texas attend, but future conference members such as the University of Houston and Brigham Young University were present.
Houston senior Ruhi Thapar, diversity and inclusion chair of Student Senate, said the student governments present had a bigger impact this trip.
“We had a greater impact when lobbying because we could kind of combine the shared experiences of all Big 12 schools in an effort to really create an impactful lobbying experience,” Thapar said.
Though many collegiate divisions lobby in Congress for mental health resource accessibility and tuition affordability, Thapar said the specific partnership with Big 12 schools allowed congressional members to hear issues particular and unique to the conference and its members.
Woodlands junior and External Vice President, Nick Madincea, said this was a fun experience since the conference was able to meet in Washington, D.C.
“The first day we hosted an evening reception where we got to know each other,” Madincea said. “It’s really cool because this is one of the few events every year where we get to meet our Big 12 counterparts.”
Madincea said he was thankful Baylor was the first to host Big 12 on the Hill after COVID-19 and thus be given the opportunity to set the tone for future conferences. He said student government was able to effectively share the “Baylor story” and received positive feedback from their partnering institutions.
“It’s really fun to be in student government and talk to people in the federal government because we kind of speak the same language, but in very different settings,” Madincea said.
Plano senior and Attorney General Mia Gradick, who previously spent time living in Washington and lobbying in Congress, said student government members in attendance were divided into teams of around eight. Each team went to various congressional offices to lobby for issues such as continuation of the Pell Grant, a federal fund given to students — including many at Baylor — who need tuition assistance.
“The thing about lobbying is you don’t know … that you’re going to make an impact for people, the students to come,” Gradick said. “It’s just so fulfilling to know that you get to be a spokesperson for your university.”
Because Big 12 on the Hill was hosted while Congress was in session, not all congressional members were always available. Their aides would be present instead, but nevertheless student government representatives were able to share issues important to their respective universities.
“We’re representing the 15,213 undergraduate students at Baylor, and it was really great to be able to really, truly advocate for them,” Madincea said. “Every student on this campus was represented by their student government … we were speaking with lawmakers and fighting for a more affordable college experience for them and also more mental health resources for them.”
Thapar said the Baylor delegation was passionate and underwent many team-bonding experiences, especially being thrown into lobbying together. She said it was special to walk the halls of Congress where a lot of important work gets done wearing her Baylor pin.
“We were kind of like the catalyst for bringing all these schools together and therefore bringing our perspectives on the issues of college affordability and mental health in a very cohesive way,” Thapar said.
Gradick, who will graduate in May and move to Virginia to attend law school, said it has been one of her favorite experiences in student government to take their work from Waco to a national stage.
“I was honored that … I got to kind of do my part and [leave] Baylor better than I found it,” Gradick said.
Further than impacting Baylor students, Gradick said it was rewarding to see schools from across the country unite to create a better college experience for so many. She said she appreciated seeing Baylor student government members walk alongside even “rival” schools such as UT and Texas Christian University to make progress on every campus.
“That’s probably what the conference was mostly [about] … bringing all our diverse viewpoints from different schools together with the end goal of lobbying effectively,” Thapar said.