Community College Day

When it came to Community College Day at the Capitol in Austin last month, 30-odd students and sponsors were up for it. Not only “up” as in anticipating the event, but “up” as in being awake and at TCC Trinity River before 5 a.m. and ready to board a chartered bus.

The early start was nothing unusual for student Matthew Jewell. “I’ve had those early departures before with student government, so it wasn’t anything new,” he said. “Most of us got to sleep on the bus, but if I had to be honest, there was some rowdiness in the back.”

Nothing that earbuds couldn’t drown out, however.

Sammy Jepsen, who had taken part in planning the event as an officer of the Texas Junior College Student Government Association, was too busy rehearsing his day. “Based on the experience and what we were going to accomplish, you could have waked me up at 2:00 and I’d still have gone,” he said. “Mainly, I was thinking about important questions to ask the representatives and learning more about them.”

Community College Day occurs early in every Texas legislative session and is sponsored by the Texas Association of Community Colleges to bring students from throughout the state to meet with their representatives and senators, carrying the messages of what the colleges are doing for them and what they need from the state to make it even better.

This Community College Day was perhaps a bit livelier than before since it was the first in-person one since the pandemic. The virtual visitations employed by many colleges just couldn’t match the excitement of being in the Capitol and meeting the legislators face-to-face.

Arriving in Austin, the TCC group fanned out to visit the offices of the legislators who had been assigned to them, but they weren’t alone. Faculty and staff sponsors who had accompanied them on the bus had their backs, as did a contingent from TCC’s top administrators and Board of Trustees — Chancellor Elva LeBlanc, Vice Chancellor Reginald Gates and Trustees Teresa Ayala, Bill Greenhill and Kenneth Barr.

“Developing a relationship with legislators and getting their support takes a team,” LeBlanc said, “the students telling their story, the trustees who are also elected officials like the legislators informing legislators on the positive impact that TCC has in the community, and administrators sharing the data, the student outcomes, and the success stories. Each has an important role. However, the students’ stories speak to the positive student outcomes that are a result of excellent faculty and staff going the extra mile in being student ready.

Nevertheless, the students felt a few butterflies as they approached their tasks. Rep. Tony Tinderholt of Arlington was out of town, as were most of the legislators that day, but Matt Jewell, Anita Aigukhian and Olla Moktar met with Chief of Staff Hannah Sacia. “She understood that we – the three of us – had never really been a part of an experience like this,” Jewell said. “We had never met our legislators before, none of us had ever gone to Austin and the Capitol. So, she understood that we were nervous, and she tried to make us feel acclimated to understand how politics work.”

Politics can work, they were told, despite party differences. “A lot of the Democrats and the Republicans, the conservatives and liberals, work together to get bills done,” Jewell said. “You always see that they’re so polarized in the media, but she was kind of showing that in actuality you have these strong Democrats and strong Republicans actually working together to make a bill happen.”

Jepsen, Joey Barajas Makayla Johnson and Allan Barbosa met with Rep. Nicole Collier of Fort Worth. “She was the star of the show,” Jepsen said. “I went to her office not expecting much. I was kind of timid, but she really made you feel like you deserved to be there, like there was a reason we were there. She was very down to earth. She listened to all our stories.”

The students were impressed by Collier, and they, in turn, greatly impressed Greenhill, who had sat in on the meeting. “The students were just wonderful,” he said. “They were prepared, told their stories well and it was a great conversation.

“It’s terribly important for the legislators to hear from our students. The stories they tell hits them in their hearts and in their minds. After all, this is what TCC is all about.”

It’s also valuable, he said, for students and trustees to interact. “It’s important for the students to know that we’re real people, that we do more than sit behind a big table and vote to approve things, he said. “They need to know that they are our first priority.”

LeBlanc also had praise for the students. “Most of them were representing the student government from each campus and were well prepared for the meetings with legislators, she said. “They knew the recommendations being made by the Texas Commission on Community College Finance and effectively told their story about the positive experiences at TCC.”

The day wasn’t taken up entirely with meetings. There was plenty of time to explore the Capitol and to visit the House of Representative and Senate chambers, although neither body was in session that day. There was also lunch in the Capitol Grill and browsing in the gift shop.

Afterwards, it was time to reboard the bus and head back to Fort Worth. This time, Jewell said, things were much quieter. “Those people who were rowdy in the beginning were tired,” he said, “and they fell right asleep.”