Trustees hear updates on Advocate Penn State, government relations strategy

September 16, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State’s Office of Government and Community Relations (OGCR) is preparing for the year ahead as both the state and federal governments return from summer recess. Advocate Penn State, the University’s broad-based advocacy initiative organizationally housed in OGCR, shared its strategies and plans for 2021-22 today (Sept. 16) with the Board of Trustees Committee on Outreach, Development and Community Relations. 

Zack Moore, Penn State’s vice president for Government and Community Relations, and Bre Mapston, advocacy and communications manager, offered a brief history of how advocacy became a University priority for governmental affairs. Budget delays in Harrisburg underscored the need for better coordination between legislative priorities and advocacy actions. Advocate Penn State was created in 2018 to fill this role by connecting Penn State supporters directly to legislators and policy influencers. 

Advocate Penn State has been building a base of supporters from several constituent groups including students, alumni, faculty, staff, families and voters, and has brought together over 15,000 advocates. Moore said students are a particularly important group, as “legislation often affects them most directly.” A University-affiliated student advocacy group, Lion Caucus, was formed to educate and activate students all around the commonwealth in partnership with the OGCR.

Mapston updated the committee on Advocate Penn State’s work in the past year. The organization was required to pivot as the pandemic halted in-person events and re-shaped communication with lawmakers. “The initiative tried several new strategies to reach both advocates and legislators where they were, while ensuring Penn State’s voice was heard in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C.,” Mapston said. 

Advocate Penn State participated in several collaborative advocacy campaigns, organized Penn State’s first fully virtual advocacy day, and has started to target members of the U.S. Congress to give Penn State supporters a voice at the federal level. 

Collaborative campaigns 

Advocate Penn State works closely with other Penn State units on advocacy campaigns for policies with mutual interest. Paul Clifford, the CEO of the Penn State Alumni Association; Kelly Austin, interim senior vice president for Commonwealth Campuses; James Delattre, associate vice president for research and director of the Office of Entrepreneurship and Commercialization; and Mary Wirth, director of college relations and communications in the College of Agricultural Sciences, all joined the presentation to discuss these projects. 

Delattre worked with Advocate Penn State and OGCR on funding for Invent Penn State. “Gov. [Tom] Wolf and the state legislature have made economic development a priority,” said Moore. “We have a fantastic entrepreneurial ecosystem in Invent Penn State; supporting funding for their important work is a natural fit.” 

Hundreds of supporters contacted their legislators through this campaign, including high-ranking members of the Penn State and business communities. While budget constraints delayed success, Delattre said his team is prepared to continue partnering with Advocate Penn State in the coming year.

Ag Advocates joined forces with Advocate Penn State to show support for the Agricultural Land Scrip Fund, which provides funding for Agricultural Research and Penn State Extension. The funding supports programs, education and services in all 67 Pennsylvania counties, as well as research addressing some of the largest problems in the region. Wirth reported that this was the first year the College of Agricultural Sciences partnered with Advocate Penn State for an action alert, and supporters shared the importance of funding with over 80% of the state legislature. 

Advocate Penn State Capital Day 

The COVID-19 pandemic and related mitigation measures prevented in-person events, including the traditional Advocate Penn State Capital Day in Harrisburg. Typically, more than 400 Penn Staters travel to the Capitol to meet legislators and attend the Rally in the Rotunda. This year, Advocate Penn State partnered with the Penn State Alumni Association, Commonwealth Campuses, Lion Caucus and others to host a virtual day with participants from around Pennsylvania. 

Austin recounted the ways Penn State campuses engaged in the event, including sending messages and videos from chancellors to their campus communities, working with directors of student affairs to get students involved and sharing the event on campus’ social media pages. Clifford shared the Alumni Association’s long history of involvement in Capital Day, stating he was glad to see alumni continue their commitment to Penn State through advocacy. 

The virtual event had double the turnout of a traditional event and reached over 200 legislators. Mapston credited the lower barrier to entry for participation to the event’s success: “Advocates are more likely to engage when they can send a message in a matter of minutes, as opposed to taking a day off class or work.” She said future events will likely employ a hybrid model, since personal connections and visibility in Harrisburg are still crucial to maintaining the relationship between Penn State and Pennsylvania. 

Federal campaigns 

Advocate Penn State ran two campaigns at the federal level for the first time last year. The first, aimed at securing COVID relief funding for students and the University, saw 500 responses in under 48 hours. The second campaign to increase the maximum Pell Grant award is ongoing and has garnered numerous supporters. 

Amanda Wintersteen, OGCR’s director of federal relations, said, “The Pell Grant supports thousands of Penn State students, but is lower in today’s dollars than in 1978. The University is committed to access, affordability and competition. It is important that our members of Congress hear directly from students about how increasing funding to this critically important program can help them graduate with less debt.” 

Proponents of the Pell program can send a message to their member of Congress at advocate.psu.edu.

Future plans 

Advocate Penn State will continue to engage advocates and connect them with legislators. The initiative, alongside the OGCR, will support priorities including funding for research and financial aid; the commonwealth’s general appropriation with Penn State Agricultural Sciences and Invent Penn State; issues surrounding student debt; and more. 

“Advocacy is one of the strongest tools we have in Harrisburg and D.C. There is no silencing a crowd of Penn Staters — when we speak with one voice, we can show lawmakers how important Penn State is to their constituents and their communities,” Moore said. “Advocating is building for the future.”  

All Penn State supporters are encouraged to become an advocate and subscribe to email and text announcements for action alerts and updates. Advocates can also receive information from Advocate Penn State’s FacebookTwitter, and Instagram pages. 

Last Updated September 16, 2021