Q&A with Congressional Fellows: Zewelanji Serpell
Q&A with Congressional Fellows: Zewelanji Serpell

July 2018

Tell us a little bit about your year on Capitol Hill, the issues that you covered, your responsibilities.

This year on Capitol Hill, serving as an Education Policy Fellow with the Democratic staff on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, was an intense period of “learning while doing.” Much of my work focused on higher education issues, particularly institutional accountability and accreditation, as well as issues specific to historically Black universities and colleges (HBCUs). I was actively and meaningfully engaged in crafting legislation and working within my issue area—leading legislative briefings for advocacy groups, associations, member offices, the Democratic caucus, and other higher education stakeholders. Other responsibilities included attending and summarizing pertinent Hill briefings and regulatory meetings at the Department of Education, as well as drafting hearing questions, press statements, memos, and letters. Alongside committee staff, I also helped prepare for the mark-up of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and participated in a variety of meetings with the congressman in his role as the ranking member of the committee.

Can you describe a day in the life of a congressional staffer?

Committee staff divide their time between crafting policy (including reading relevant policy and research papers), meeting with advocacy groups and associations, preparing staffers for hearings, mark-ups, floor action, and so forth; providing technical assistance to member offices on bills they want to introduce; and staffing for the congressman at various meetings, events, and Congress-related activities.

What was the most valuable thing that you learned from the experience? What is the most surprising thing that you learned while in DC?

Communication on the Hill, oral and written, has to be adapted to meet different goals, and has to specifically consider “for whom” and “for what purpose.” I’ve learned that “messaging” is critical in all policy work and includes developing policy statements that are easy to grasp, memorable, and repeatable so they continuously reinforce key points. Another important insight is, to quote my legislative director: “We legislate for the future, not for the present.” Some anticipation about what the world could be or soon become is essential for effective legislative work. I have also discovered that being “anti” something is not the corollary for being “pro” the opposite thing. Hence, it is important to be “for” something. In the long term, taking this affirmative position enables a more thoughtful and evidence-based approach to policy making.

What should education researchers know about the factors that go into education policy decisions?

For research to gain traction in the policy world, these are key factors: one, the degree to which the research concretely addresses a current policy issue; two, the extent to which research findings have good face-validity; and three, whether the research issue is one about which different stakeholders are willing to rally and speak loudly and persistently.

Based on your experience, what advice would you give to fellow education researchers about connecting their work to policy and sharing their research with policymakers?

Keep abreast of education issues covered in the daily news. Stay informed about activity at the Department of Education and, if possible, issues that arise within the scope of your research expertise; attend hearings and consider testifying or writing reaction statements for public consumption. Also pay attention to what the education policy think tanks, groups, and associations are writing about—note carefully how these stakeholders frame and discuss relevant research. Last, it helps to read actual legislative text—doing this vastly improved my understanding about what actually constitutes a “policy implication.”

How might this experience shape your future research and career decisions?

The policy vantage point is decidedly more urgent, expansive, and potentially impactful than I had imagined before this fellowship. My research has always been “applied” and based in the “real world of schools,” but I largely considered policy a barrier. My future work will shift more toward bridging the research-to-policy gap. Policy-relevant changes in my research will likely entail using more “interim” measures of progress in my study of ways to boost academic performance, and a shift from studying “underperformance” to studying “equity gaps.” Career wise, I expect to expand my role at my institution to harness what I now know about higher education policy, to support the administration’s efforts to support successful college completion in the large population of students from low-income backgrounds that it serves.

Zewelanji Serpell is an associate professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. She earned a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Howard University in 2002. Serpell’s research focuses on the learning experiences of African American students in school and examines sociocultural processes that promote or inhibit learning. Her work in this area intersects with a range of significant policy issues in school. After her fellowship ends she will return to her faculty position at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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