Student involvement in government goes beyond the classroom

Arjun Mocherla

Aside from breakfast tacos, one of the biggest advantages of attending college in Austin is the easy access to the state Capitol just blocks from campus. As the buzz of the legislative session begins, hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students will intern and work in various capacities related to the state of Texas. From legislative to lobbyist work, students from the University of Texas will be doing everything from answering phones to helping draft legislation.

I intern in the Texas Senate Committee of Health & Human Service and so far have taken meetings with stakeholders, researched other states’ health care plans and helped catalogue the Sunset Commission’s recommendation to consolidate the five health agencies. This year the Sunset Commission, a commission dedicated to assessing the need and functions of the state’s agencies, recommended consolidating the five health agencies into one agency. Should the Legislature choose to follow and implement this recommendation, Texas could see a large restructuring effort of state health services.

 I have had the opportunity to see some of the inner workings of policy development and bill drafting and have been amazed by how even small contributions could make an impact. Real people from all sorts of backgrounds and levels of influence have an important voice in the process that influences the results of public decision-making. For example, Jordan Dixon, a longtime Senate staffer and current committee director, asked me to look into what Missouri has done with community mental health centers and how they have integrated mental health and primary care with some of their Medicaid recipients. Dixon then asked me what I thought of their programs and if they might be a possible model for Texas to investigate and perhaps even implement. Honestly, I was surprised that my limited research into state programs could have an impact on legislation development, but it might. This legislative session, I hope to learn more about health care policy and the development of our state’s health systems while at the same time having an impact on the health of Texans.

Students have a lot more of a voice than I previously realized, and I would like to stress that anyone and everyone can have an impact in this state. Whether it is a niche lobbying firm or a state agency, UT students can influence this state by interning or working in some capacity across the variety of organizations and institutions involved in keeping the wheels of our government turning, particularly in the area of higher education, where their voices are noted and held in high regard. This legislative session, with a new UT System chancellor, an exiting president and a variety of higher education issues being considered, the University has a vested interest in the goings-on at the Capitol.

As students, we should take greater ownership of the issues affecting our school and not let those who don’t see the educational landscape through our eyes make all the decisions. In front of us right now are a plethora of issues, including financial aid, research and innovation, the Texas Dream Act and tuition deregulation, all of which will have a serious impact on students in this state. From Invest in Texas, the student lobbying movement, to UT Advocates, a program run by the Texas Exes and Student Government to meet with state officials, student initiatives to engage in the public discourse are already underway.

With the legislative session coming into full swing, I look forward to students playing a more active role in the development of state policy and student issues.  There are a multitude of issues that face us as students at the University of Texas and a multitude of solutions that we can explore. While the majority of internships and jobs at the Capitol are already underway, there are many unofficial, and arguably more important, ways to voice one’s opinions. We should show up to committee meetings, write to representatives, meet with stakeholders, research and develop policy proposals and work toward leaving an impact on state policy. As students, participating in the process can be an incredible addition to our college experience and might be something that we take with us beyond the 40 Acres. What starts here can change the state of Texas for the better.

Mocherla is a Plan II and public health junior from Midland. He is also a member of the Texas Student Media Board of Operating Trustees, which oversees the Texan.