Huskies on the Hill: Spotlight on UW Student Lobbyists

The “Husky experience” includes something different for every UW student. Some students spend time abroad, others dedicate their student life to sports, or maybe lab work and research. For James Moschella and Alex Wirth, their Husky experience includes many months and long hours representing student issues in the state and federal capitol.

James represents graduate and professional students in both Olympia and D.C. as the Vice President of External Affairs for the Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS). His days in Olympia include meetings with legislators, staff or external stakeholders. Since graduate students are uniquely affected by federal policy around research funding, he also splits time making calls and connections to federal stakeholders in D.C.

Alex directs all of the undergraduate student government’s advocacy efforts as the director of the student’s Government Relations office. He is in his junior year and is majoring in International Studies with a minor in Law, Societies, & Justice. As part of the position, Alex is taking winter quarter off from classes in order to lobby full-time in Olympia. His days are filled with legislator meetings, testimony and lots of office busywork.

Q: What motivated you to become a student lobbyist?

J: Last year I worked as a Policy Analyst for the graduate student senate, and realized how poorly graduate students are spoken for in state policy. UW grad students total over 14,000, which is a larger student population than most state schools’ undergrad population. I wanted to make sure that every legislator knows that graduate students can struggle and need help like undergraduates; and also that their research and work influences and affects nearly everything in Washington – from economic policy and infrastructure improvements to world-class cancer research and engineering innovation.

A: I wanted to take a job during my undergraduate years that would impact students – some way to be engaged with the University community, get involved in my own passions, and make a difference – this was a perfect combination of all three! I’m also motivated by all the students I know who are impacted by what happens in the Legislature; students who receive the State Need Grants, Opportunity Scholarship, or are enjoying their high ranking courses and faculty at the UW.

Q: What is the issue that students care about most this legislative session?

J: In the past, I’d say student debt since grad students have more debt than anyone. Yet this year, it was clear that some students were struggling with issues surrounding mental health. We’re working hard to address the stigma of mental health issues, and finding ways to support students on our campus that need treatment most, and hopefully funding programs that make it easier for all UW students to get the treatment they need.

A: I think students care a lot about making sure that we can have an institution that everyone can access while making sure we keep the same global prestige that is associated with the UW. This means making sure the state honors its commitment to making higher education in Washington affordable for all residents of our state, through tuition, financial aid, and costs like textbooks and housing. It also means making sure students are supported, which is why we are lobbying for strengthened counseling, mental health, and Title IX support. It also means supporting excellence through state support for UW buildings, and supporting our faculty and programs.

Q: What is your favorite part about lobbying in Olympia?

J: The access. It’s been amazing to see how accessible our elected officials are, and to be taken seriously when we try to work with them. I thought that as a student, my views might be discredited when in competition with other professional lobbyists. It’s been exceptionally refreshing to have our legislators not just listen to our issues, but be willing to support us in our endeavors and even go to bat for us. In a time where many are dismayed by government, there are some inspiring people in Olympia who would do anything to make life better for Washingtonians.

A: It’s great to see legislators take interest in what we have to say, and to see our initiatives change from ideas to real legislation as we move through session. Olympia has its frustrating moments, but seeing decision-makers engage with students makes it all worthwhile.

Q: How do you spend your time when the legislature is not in session?

A: When I’m not in Olympia, I like to hang out with friends back in Seattle, run in the mornings, and see new places. I’m an avid geocacher and an international politics nerd.

J: Mostly working on other school things! I’ve got a capstone project and am aiming to graduate next month, so I’m working to finish up my projects best I can! I also serve as Political Director for Student Advocates for Graduate Education (SAGE), which is a national coalition of graduate students, coach little-league in Northeast Seattle in the Spring, run a few websites which produce soccer-focused content, and am working with an organization called Because Baseball in Egypt that is teaching young students baseball as an avenue to expand cultural and social education. If I find any free time, I’ll be at a pub catching the morning’s European soccer matches.

Q: What advice do you have for alumni who want to engage in legislative advocacy? Can advocacy make a difference?

A: Legislators will not do things unless you ask them to – and they really do value what you have to say. Never assume someone else is making the calls on an issue that is important to you. Change can and does happen in Olympia, but it depends on support from the entire Husky community to make it happen. One of the greatest messages we can send in Olympia is how our UW alumni are making this state a better place for all Washingtonians, but we can only keep doing that if the state supports our Husky Experience. Make sure your representatives and senators know you’re proud of the purple and gold, and that you think the state should be too!

J: Be loud! And speak often! One of the questions I ask nearly every legislator I meet is, “How can we be more effective? At what point would you have to act to change things?” The most profound answer I received was that we need to be louder. Legislators, staff and committees have hundreds of meetings every few weeks. They hear from every possible industry you can think of, and most of them are asking for money. If you want to be involved, be loud and be consistent – speak up and contact your elected officials as often as you can. If they remember your name, they’ll remember the issues you care about, and that is the point where they’ll start listening to you and that is your avenue to create change.