Inaugural AERA Congressional Fellow Reflects on Year on Capitol Hill
Inaugural AERA Congressional Fellow Reflects on Year on Capitol Hill

August 2017

The following was written by Jenna Sablan, 2016–17 AERA/AAAS Congressional Fellow.

I received my Ph.D. in education policy in 2015. In 2016, I began to think I knew nothing about education policy.

To be fair to my alma mater and my advisor, I had impeccable theoretical training, methodological know-how, and a grasp of the educational literature. I had previous professional experience in higher education institutions, and my political science undergraduate major must have provided me with some working knowledge of how Congress works. A few weeks into my AERA Congressional Fellowship in the Senate Budget Committee, surrounded daily by smart and diligent staff members, I wondered what kind of expert of education I really was. At the end of my fellowship, I have a much better sense.

So, what made the fellowship such a transformative experience? There are at least three reasons.

The first is what you do. Since this is the first year AERA has participated in the long-standing AAAS Congressional Fellowship, AERA members are understandably less familiar with the program. “What do you do?” is a common question I receive, and “What do I do?” is a common way I start to answer the inquiry.

The short answer to what an AERA Congressional Fellow does is a range of tasks and projects, many common to the everyday Hill staffer, but elusive to an educational researcher. Meeting with constituents and advocacy groups about their federal priorities. Working with state educational leaders, such as agency heads or college presidents, on their concerns. Developing legislation that the member is introducing. Analyzing the President’s Budget for education-related implications. And, particularly for someone working for a member of the HELP committee this year, preparing for the confirmation of the Secretary of Education.

The second is what do you learn. Beyond just an expansion of content knowledge around education legislation, there is a world of legislative process and procedure that became much more concrete to me. I developed a depth of knowledge of higher education policy and policy process in ways that are perhaps different from the depth of knowledge one acquires through the dissertation process or taking or teaching a seminar course on policy. In this way, a Congressional Fellowship can build the education policy researcher’s skillset in unique ways beyond many of the traditional experiences for academics.

The third is where do you go from here. Bridging the social/behavioral research to policy/practice divide is one objective of this program. As a Pacific Islander scholar, I have an added goal of learning how to not only improve my scholarship, but also to contribute to my community. Through this fellowship, I directly worked on public policy where people of color crafting such legislation are in short supply and receiving the brunt of them are in abundance.

How to make education research policy-relevant—particularly for greater equity and social justice—is for many a pressing question that the AERA Congressional Fellowship can help someone start to answer. Going forward, I think I know a lot about education policy. And I think that can make a Fellow all the more dangerous.