A student delegation from Niagara University traveled to Washington, D.C., April 14-16 to speak with elected officials and advocate for the passage of the Mental Health Services for Students Act of 2023.

The trip was planned and implemented by social work interns in the university’s Rose Bente Lee Ostapenko Center for Race, Equity, and Mission, who assessed the act for service delivery gaps, prepared a policy brief, helped the students to prepare their scripts, and trained them for the meetings they arranged on Capitol Hill.

The 23 students, accompanied by the interns and Dr. Rolanda Ward, associate professor of social work and the center’s endowed faculty director; Kaylyn Townsend-Kensinger, the center’s community health equity specialist; Dr. Tanyetta Carter, faculty fellow  in social work; and Ezra P. Scott Jr., New York State Department of Public Service, met with staff from the offices of Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and U.S. Representatives Frank Pallone, Claudia Tenney, Gregory Meeks, Bill Foster, Nick Langworthy, Brian Fitzpatrick, Chrissy Houlahan, Richie Torres, Patrick Ryan, and Mary Gay Scanlon.

During the 15-minute sessions, the students shared statistics and stories to demonstrate the critical need for school-based comprehensive mental health programs.

“My personal journey has provided me with a profound understanding of the transformative power of mental health support, especially within the educational system,” said Sophie Marengere, a nontraditional social work junior and mother of two. “As you consider the Mental Health Services for Students Act of 2023, I urge you to think about the countess children who are still struggling in silence. We have an obligation to ensure that every child receives the support they need to thrive academically, socially, and emotionally. I implore you to support this bill and take a step toward making a real difference in the lives of our children.”

“The students were taken aback by how accessible our congressional members were and by the fact that they, as students, could speak to government officials,” said Dr. Ward, who noted that several international students were part of the group. “Our trip was a quick lesson about advocacy, but I think they gained a lifetime of memories.”

Dr. Ward also noted that the interns gained valuable experience in Social Work Competency Five: Engage in Policy Practice, which requires students to be able to assess how social welfare and economic policies impact the delivery of and access to social services and apply critical thinking to analyze, formulate, and advocate for policies that advance human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice.

"Our goal in the Office of Student Affairs is to ensure that all students are connected and have opportunities to connect their classroom experiences to high-impact learning experiences,” said Averl Harbin, dean for student engagement & belonging. “We are proud to co-sponsor the advocacy trip and are excited that Niagara students have this opportunity.”

The students also toured the Capitol Building and Gallery and the National Museum of African American History and Culture during their stay.