ECE students on Capitol Hill
Jonathan Damery, ECE ILLINOIS
- Seven Illinois students — including six from ECE ILLINOIS — met with legislators in Washington, D.C., during the Congressional Visits Day last month.
- This two-day event gives members of the science and technology community an opportunity to discuss the importance of research funding with Congressional members and staffers.
- The students met with representatives from their home districts, including Illinois, New Jersey, and California.
Meetings on Capitol Hill — at least in appearance — seem ready-made for television. They happen in hallways, walking between other meetings.
For seven Illinois students — including six from ECE ILLINOIS — this is now a first-hand reality, having spent two days of spring break in those hallways and offices. They were there, last month, as representatives of IEEE-USA at the Congressional Visits Day, an annual opportunity for members of the science and technology community — both academic and commercial — to meet with legislators and discuss the importance of research funding.
“The impact on our careers is much more significant when we are looking at research and development timelines,” said ECE graduate student Gloria See, who organized the university’s participation, referring to herself and the other students. “Those are technologies that will mature during our career paths, versus the mid- to late-career professionals or retired professionals.”
As recommended by IEEE-USA, the students focused their discussions on sustained funding for the national laboratories, the system of 17 facilities overseen by the Department of Energy, which, in Illinois, includes both Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory. “They don’t have a lot of visibility to the general public,” See said. “[But] cutting national lab funding has very dramatic effects for the Illinois economy, especially around Chicago.”
For electrical and computer engineering students, these laboratories could represent future job prospects. Many ECE alumni have launched lifelong careers at places like the Sandia National Laboratory, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and collaborations among Illinois researchers and these laboratories are common as well. As such, the potential for personal impact on the lives of students now and in the future is varied and far-reaching.
“We all have our own personal stories and our own perspectives on what was happening,” said Anthony Shvets, a junior electrical engineering student, who also participated in the event last year. “This provided a lot of diversity to the conversations.”
The event offers a venue for voicing these concerns on Capitol Hill. “That's great for the students, but is at least as good for our Congressional leaders who gain access to some of the most talented and innovative minds in the country,” said Russell Harrison, the IEEE-USA director of government relations.
The first day of the event was given almost wholly to lectures and panel presentations, designed to help the students and industry representatives formulate an effective and substantiated pitch for the following day, when they would be meeting with representatives and staffers from their home districts.
“The objective was to prepare us, but also to kind of update us on what was going on in the Capitol and what was going on with the budget,” said Lucas Hendren, a junior electrical engineering student.
“It helps us stay on the same page with what we’re trying to say,” added Alexander Hsu, a junior electrical engineering student and California native, who also attended last year. “My district representative only had [a few] minutes available for me. So I had ... to make sure I got my message across as concisely as possible.”
The second day, the meetings commenced — some in offices, some in conference rooms, some in hallways — and overall, the representatives seemed receptive to the students’ interests,
“It seemed like, for the most part, we were all on the same page,” said Abhinav Chevula, a junior electrical engineering student who met with representative from his home district in New Jersey. “The staff even mentioned that they thought it was an important issue to the senator.”
The students hoped to illuminate these legislative issues from a viewpoint many representatives might not experience otherwise. “We understand that not everyone in the government has a scientific background,” Hsu said. “We’re just there as a technical source.”
Prospects for collaboration also went two ways. The representative for junior electrical engineering student Miguel Moscoso’s Chicago-area district asked about the possibility of having Illinois students mentor middle- and high-school-aged students in her area. “They’re going to start pairing them with industry partners first,” See said, “and then we’ll look at taking some of the students up to talk about the undergrad engineering experience.”
For Illinois students, these interactions on Capitol Hill are bound for annual recurrence. Last year, four students attended, compared to this year’s seven. Next year, See, who plans to organize a third trip, hopes even more students will apply, especially students from other states. The student perspective is important year after year.
“Congress isn’t necessarily static,” Chevula said. “New congressmen are elected. And some of these new congressman may not have much perspective or much of a knowledge about technical issues and how they do impact the economy and the future of our nation.”
After two days on Capitol Hill, the seven students seem committed to return, even after graduation, when they’re building their professional careers. “You really need ... to make sure we still get that research and development funding and we still get contracts funded,” said Braven Leung, a senior aerospace engineering student.
“I think it’s particularly important for people in technical careers to do this,” See agreed. “They’re the ones that are really in the weeds and see where this kind of funding is going to have an impact ... so making sure that communication channel is open is increasingly important.”