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Ohio State students bring social issues to Washington

College of Social Work program teaches importance of federal advocacy

The D.C. Advocacy Immersion at The Ohio State University is a special opportunity for students in the College of Social Work. Each spring, a group receives advocacy training and travels to Washington to meet with lawmakers and learn about government advocacy. Students have the chance to share personal experiences from their social work field placements with current Ohio senators and representatives.

Steve David, the college’s advocacy director, coordinates the trip.

“There’s this thing that I see happen when students go in and touch the legislative process directly,” he said. “That really gives them this sense of efficacy, and also this sense that they belong in these spaces.”

Rochelle Sparks (right) in Washington D.C.Rochelle Sparks is currently pursuing her master’s degree in social work, focusing on mental health and substance abuse. Her focus on mental health was inspired by her daughter’s struggles, and so she chose to go on the trip to learn more about her options.

“She’s the first one in my family that has been diagnosed [with a mental health condition],” Sparks said of her daughter. “I had no clue of what that looked like, or how I was going to proceed with helping her and supporting her.”

A goal of the program is for individuals to see themselves in new professional spheres. To do this, David said, students choose the issues they want to explore on the trip.

“We ask them, ‘What issues do you care about?’ And then I place them in advocacy groups based on the things they want to talk about,” David said. “It’s us having a plan to give them the structure and the scaffolding to be able to do that work effectively. Their interests drive the issues we pick.”

Once the groups arrive in Washington, they meet with the offices of at least three Ohio elected officials. Altogether, this year’s D.C. Fly-In was able to meet with both Ohio senators and 14 out of the 15 Ohio representatives.

In addition to time with the legislators, the program also focuses on professional development. The College hosts a reception for the students to meet and interact with other university alumni in the area and a DC careers panel to expose students to careers in government and advocacy. 

“One of the coolest things for me was that this was the first year that folks that had been on the trip with us before, are now working in some of these legislative offices,” David said.

For Sparks, the trip has helped her better realize what she wants to do with her education. She’s gained a greater understanding of how the legislative process works and the options she has going forward.  

“As I took this trip and I learned, I was excited about this space and what I see myself doing at the federal level,” she said.

The program is impactful and continues to inspire students to do what they are passionate about. Sparks encourages any interested social work student to participate.

“With the guidance of this team, we are put in spaces that I don’t think a lot of people are very knowledgeable about, but that they can make a difference in,” Sparks said.  

David said this program is what Ohio State is all about.

“This [is] ‘Education for Citizenship.’ This is how we teach students, by giving them the opportunity to actually touch these systems,” he said. “This is how education happens: letting students take things they care about and talk about them directly.”

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