Mckenzie Jones (Vanderbilt University Office of Federal Relations)

Living and working in D.C. has been a rush of politics, culture, and fun! My internship at Vanderbilt’s Office of Federal Relations has given me an up close and personal look at the legislative process, something I previously only read about in textbooks. The VOFR works to advocate the priorities of Vanderbilt faculty, staff, and students regarding higher education policy. As a top research institution, legislation concerning international student access, federal funds for STEM research, and financial aid are just a few of the issues of importance to Vanderbilt. That’s why as an intern, I attend many congressional mark-ups and hearings in order to aid the office in learning about the latest higher education policy.

For example, today I attended a mark-up led by the Committee to Take Steps to Improve Higher Education. The committee considered the Simplifying the Application for Student Aid Act, which would allow students to use income data from two years prior when completing the FAFSA in order to receive accurate aid information more quickly, and the Empowering Students Through Enhanced Financial Counseling Act, which will provide students with more frequent and comprehensive counseling if they decide to take out federal loans. Both acts are aimed at the ultimate goal of making higher education more affordable and accessible for all students. Seeing lawmakers consider the pros and cons of both acts proved to be an interesting experience; while both acts sounded beneficial to me at first, one congressman noted that students may be able to choose which income data they would use to complete the FAFSA (income data from two years prior or income data from the current year), which may make more students eligible for aid and inadvertently increase the cost of the program. Since our country has a growing deficit, I found this concern to be valid and it ultimately made me see the legislation in a new light. Even attending the House Science Committee hearing on the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs made me realize legislation must be looked at from a variety of different perspectives in order for lawmakers to gain an accurate understanding of its overall effectiveness.  The SBIR and STTR programs require government agencies with budgets over $100 million to set aside a portion of their funds to support small businesses working toward the commercialization of new technological developments. While the program and the businesses it supports are aimed at making these technological developments more accessible to the public (i.e. selling an exoskeleton robot which can help paraplegics walk), witnesses at the hearing warned that requiring agencies to set aside these funds could come at the cost of basic research in universities and other research institutions. When considering whether to reauthorize funds for the SBIR/STTR programs lawmakers ultimately had to consider these concerns and realize that while the program may be helpful to small businesses, it could be detrimental to research institutions’ abilities to pursue their primary missions.

However, it’s not just the political aspects of D.C. that have interested me. From museum hopping (the National Museum of American History’s first ladies’ inaugural dresses exhibit is a must see!), to visiting monuments (the Washington monument really is made of two different colors of marble), to exploring around the world food and musical festivals, to watching an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” on the lawn, D.C.’s cultural aspects have proven to be just as enriching as its political aspects. I ultimately look forward to continuing to see what else this city has to offer!

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