PhD Student, Will Smyack, Attends AICCU "Day in the Capitol"
On February 28th, the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities (AICCU) hosted its annual "Day in the Capitol" in Sacramento. Twenty students from independent non-profit institutions across California spent the day at the state capitol lobbying to increase the budget for the Cal Grant program, which supports funding for undergraduate education in California. Doctoral student, Will Smyack, represented Palo Alto University (PAU) at the event along with President Maureen O'Connor and financial aid staff members Erika Lambert and Victoria Madrigal. Smyack is in his second year of the PhD in Clinical Psychology program, with emphases in Diversity and Community Mental Health and LGBTQ+ Psychology. "It was a great experience," said Smyack. "It was really nice to sit in person with legislators and for them to listen to students share their stories about how grant funding has supported them in reaching their goals." Smyack grew up in Florida and earned his undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Florida. He received a Bright Futures grant, the Florida equivalent of the Cal Grant program. Smyack's grant covered his tuition for the entirety of his bachelor's degree education, enabling him to pursue graduate education at PAU. "If I had taken out loans for my undergraduate degree rather than this grant, I would've had to stop my education and immediately start working to pay off those loans. I would have been stuck," says Smyack. "My career goal is to be a program or hospital administrator, which requires a graduate degree. So being able to go to graduate school is allowing me the opportunity to do what I actually want to do." Even though Smyack is currently earning a doctoral degree, he is advocating for undergraduate students to receive higher amounts in Cal Grant funding to achieve their educational goals. Smyack says, "With all the work that I do, I try to have advocacy embedded within it." During the event, Smyack and students from Menlo College and Santa Clara University met with members of state legislation, including Marc Berman, Assemblymember of District 23. Students shared their personal stories about how grant funding has enabled them to pursue their educational and career goals. "The main message that came across was that it's not just about wanting more money. These grants offer students the time to volunteer or do what they need to advance their education," says Smyack. The students asked representatives to support AICCU's budget request of $15.9 million, which would benefit transfer students and increase the Cal Grant award from $9,358 to $9,500. Although it was his first time in Sacramento and lobbying at the state capitol, Smyack says the best part of the day was spending time with his PAU counterparts. "My favorite part of the day was spending time with the PAU president," says Smyack. "Dr. O'Connor was very interested in hearing my perspective and goals. Being able to spend the day with her, talking about our families, and taking selfies at the capitol was a unique experience and not something I'd be able to do if I went to a big public university."