This year, I left my middle school science classroom for an even more challenging and rewarding workplace— the United States Congress. Though I had to take a break from blogging while in my post, I am now able to share some reflections on my fellowship experience. So, why did move from Hawai'i to Washington, D.C. for the year? And what exactly did I get to do ?
It all began when I was one of 11 STEM educators honored with an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship by the Department of Energy. I was then selected for a Congressional placement and, after an interview process, was matched with the Office of Senator Al Franken (D-MN). As a comedian, writer, and politician, Al Franken has been a longtime hero of mine. It was incredible to work directly with Senator Franken to help improve the quality of education for students in Minnesota and across the nation.
And when it came time for Senator Franken to deliver remarks on the Every Student Succeeds Act, he arranged for me to get floor privileges so I could join him on the Senate floor. At various times before and after the bill’s passage, I led efforts to track Senator Franken’s provisions, including analyzing bill language and funding. After the passage of ESSA, I was engaged in its implementation—staffing the Senator at hearings, synthesizing Department of Education guidance into memos, and meeting with various education stakeholder groups and the new Secretary of Education himself.
While I was happy to lend my expertise on K-12 issues, I also appreciated the opportunity to expand my knowledge about higher education issues. I became more expert on Federal Perkins Loans and the Federal Pell grants very quickly, in response to Congressional action. This year, I was charged with helping to re-introduce three of Senator Franken’s college affordability bills. Two of the bills are smaller in scope: Understanding the True Cost of College Act, which would mandate that colleges use a standardized financial aid award letter and the Net Price Calculator Improvement Act, which would make Net Price Calculators (digital tools for calculating the “net price” of a particular college for individual students) more user-friendly and accessible on colleges’ websites. Another bill, the College Access Act, which was substantially rewritten, was a broad bill aimed at lowering tuition for students by incentivizing states to invest more in their public colleges.
As an Einstein Fellow, I attended monthly professional development events that took advantage of unique DC resources such as meetings with the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy and a behind-the-scenes tour of the Library of Congress. As part of my fellowship, I also received funding for attending professional travel, and I chose to attend SXSWedu in Austin, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) national conference in Nashville, the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) annual conference in New Orleans and a Google Apps for Education training in Boston. I appreciated the freedom to direct my own learning and be provided with so many amazing opportunities.
The Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship Program gives expert practitioners a voice in national education policy, and I am now a very proud alumna. As a Congressional Fellow, I was afforded the opportunity to immerse myself in the life of a Hill staffer and make contributions to national K-12 and postsecondary education. My accomplished cohort of Fellows enriched my experience, and I want to acknowledge how much I learned from each of them. I am grateful for my family and friends for supporting me through this fellowship year. Most of all, I want to express appreciation for Senator Franken, his legislative team, and all his staff. I had an unforgettable year in Washington, DC, but I am excited to resume my teaching practice and get back into the classroom!