Students converge on the Capitol in recent trip

A mix of around 40 students from Peet Junior High and Cedar Falls High School met in front of Peet Junior High on Feb. 24 from 6:20 a.m. to 6:40 a.m. to board a charter bus. Their destination? Iowa’s capital for an advocacy and college preparedness conference and a tour of the capitol building where they planned to meet with several senators, representatives and lobbyists. Due to some mis-set alarms, the group did end up a bit behind schedule, but thanks to bus driver Bill, they still managed to get there in an efficient manner. 

In attendance from the high school was Page Wageman, Eonna Barnes, Hannah Batterson, Eden Davis, Sal Engle, Austin Haworth, Josephine Jarwolo, Natasia Johnson, Stella Johnson, Mira Keeran, Vanessa Komen, Amaiyah Korf, Elliott Martin, Zoey Neessen, Truman Posey, Alex Somodi, Reagan Stotser, Charlie VanHooreweghe and Khila Epps representing their groups, Student Senate, SAGA, BSU and MVP. 

Chaperoning the trip was counselor CFHS Susan Langan, CFHS English teacher Brenna Griffin, CFHS teacher librarian Abby Hendrickson, Peet counselor Megan Bowden and Peet counselor Beck Lins. 

Once the bus was fully boarded and the patented safety video was done and over, Langan attracted everyone’s attention and debriefed those who had never been to this annual event before. The basic rundown is as follows: “After [the group] arrives at the conference hall, they are expected to find a seat at one of the several available tables. There will be coffee and juice as well as donut holes. The conference will have several speakers and some chances to discuss, then [the group] will have lunch, and after that we will head over to the capitol to talk to some of our representatives. Oh, and just to give [the group] a heads up, some of our (Cedar Falls) representatives told [conference leaders] that they couldn’t make it last minute, so the discussion that I will be leading will be more student based, so be thinking about how today’s polarized climate has affected you.” 

After a long sleepy drive, the student group finally reached Des Moines at 8:30 a.m. and 10 minutes later they arrived at the conference center at 8:40 a.m. Then from 8:54 to 9:00 a.m., students chatted and mingled with students from Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and other surrounding areas as Mellissa Murphy prepped her opening speech. Mellissa along with Jack D’ amico, Heather Gaumer, Susie Hakemaur, Juan Hernandez and Anna Kremer are all members of the Government Relations Committee. Murphy started the conference at 9:05 a.m. with a warm welcome, and then followed up by introducing Langan to those unfamiliar with her and giving her the floor. 

Before giving her prompt, Langan attempted to rally the sleepy conference room with a speech about past “visit the hill” conferences and how she had been personally affected by the experience. After a few minutes of her rousing speech, Murphy moved her along toward her prompt. The discussion led by Langan was prompted with the question “Has living in a polarized world affected you and how?” Preliminary to her question, Langan spoke on her own experiences as a person living in the current polarized social-political climate. 

Once she finished her enterprising lead-ins the groups began to discuss. Students and chaperones were encouraged to mingle and intermix so as to get new experiences as they discussed the engaging topic. After about 15 minutes of fervent discussion, the group came back together to allow a few speakers to share. 

First to the lectern was VanHooreweghe with a speech they had written on the bus with their prior knowledge of the discussion. They spoke on their experiences as a queer, fem-presenting nonbinary person, and as a survivor of SA; they shared about how this had affected their personal relationships and just their overall well being in today’s world. 

After VanHooreweghe, several other student’s spoke, with each experience being just as important as the last. Topics such as race, political parties, human rights, COVID-19, BLM, LGBTQIA+ equality and more were all brought up with a parallel story about how it had affected each individual. The question Langan prompted could “be discussed all day “ according to Murphy, but it did get cut down to only about half an hour. 

So at 9:25 the group moved on to the second half of Langan’s discussion. “What is something you can do to help overcome these issues? Either today or later in life.” Again the groups discussed for about five minutes before coming back together. With only a few minutes left, the speakers had to move quickly. 

First to the mic was myself, Sal Engle, with a short anecdote about not arguing with people who’s sources are false, and that instead of getting angry, you should rationalize and instead think of them as small children who can’t read. Next up was Haworth with a similar anecdote about triple checking your sources, followed closely by another few students with similar sentiments. At 9:30 the session ended with Murphy calling for a bathroom and water break as the next speakers prepared their set-up. And at 9:35 it was back to business. 

The second demonstration was led by Sonya Reis and Karen Ruiz from the Office of Latino Affairs. The first thing that Reis did to break the ice was ask if students knew the difference between Latino and Hispanic. After a few shaky unsure hands went up, she graciously moved on telling students that it was OK to not know at that moment as she was going to tell them the difference. Someone who identifies as Latino is from any country in Latin America and the Caribbean, while someone who self identifies as Hispanic is someone from a Spanish-speaking country. She also then explained Latine as a gender neutral way of addressing those of Latin American heritage. 

Her colleague Ruiz then moved on to the more theme-aligned topic of statistics with Hispanic/Latine students. Things like how only 21 percent of Latine adults in Iowa had an associates degree or higher, how 10 percent of the K-12 population is Latine while 6 percent of the total population is Latine, only 27 percent of students in the Latine community graduate from two year schools while white students are at 39 percent, and how 62 percent of Latine students graduate from a four year institution while 71 percent of white students graduate from the same schools, and on the subject of college at two year institutions there’s a 50 percent dropout rate for Latine students, and at four year schools there’s an 18 percent dropout rate, and that’s just college; most of hispanic students don’t make it past high school, not because of laziness or lack of effort, but because of familial and cultural pressures to start working and supporting their families as young as they can. 

But as Reis said “the future is brown.” The projected latine growth is currently 20% and the Latine community in Iowa is only growing, but sadly even with the communities mixing and growing, there are still many fears. Deportation, systematic racial oppression, language barriers and poverty. To quote Reis again, “They are still living in survival mode; you don’t have time to sit down and read to your child.” Even at a young age these things weigh on Latine children’s minds. 

To wrap up the session Reis rallied students with a speech about supporting each other. She asked them what they were there to advocate for, and with every answer she tied them together. “Advocate for the collective,” she said, and with grand applause, she and her colleague left the floor at 10:05.

The next three presentations left many students dreadfully bored, so they will be skipped to save time, and sanity. Just know that the presentation from 10:05-10:35 led by Darcy Sprouse spoke on the accessibility and affordability of postsecondary education in the state of Iowa. All resources from the presentation can be found here. The next two were speaking on the FAFSA; the first lead by Mark Wiederspan from 10:40-11:04, who mainly spoke on how the FAFSA would be changing in the next few years and the second led by Erick Danielson from 11:04-11:19 who spoke about new efforts for raising FAFSA completion rates. His resources can be found here. 

The final speaker of the conference was Kate Harrington with the Iowa Community Action Association. She took the floor at 11:20, and her session focused on how to advocate as a constituent of your local representatives with power and respect. Her main points were focusing on how to debate respectfully and resolve conflict graciously, how to speak with them in a way that will keep them from getting defensive, allow them to focus on your points, and come off as someone that they should take seriously;, and how to get a hold of them when they are unavailable to you in person. 


At 11:42 the conference concluded and Murphy ushered the guests towards the buffet for a lunch of chips, salad, and deli sandwiches. Once finished, [the group] made theirits way back onto the bus and at 12:21 headed towards the capitol building. 

The group from Cedar Falls arrived at the capitol building at 12:30 p.m. and made theirits way through security excited to explore the grandeur of the building. From 12:30 to 1:50 students and staff explored the building taking in the many types of art displayed about the capitaol. Of course, they explored the dome and the balcony, but certain students chose to stick to the ground floor. During their time, Cedar Falls staff and students met with CfF counselor lobbyist Jim Obradovich, who helped the group tour the area and meet up with some of the seat holders the group wished to interact with. 

As the group walked around they all had their own agendas, and SAGA specifically had the agenda of speaking with Sandy Solomon;, Waverly’s Bremer county representative. Their reasoning? Solomon is one of the representatives working towards passing a bill banning transgender athletes from competing in the sport of their proper gender, saying instead that they should compete with their sex asigned at birth. However, SAGA leaders were unsuccessful in their attempts to speak with Solomon as all three times they attempted to contact her, she was seemingly out of house. 

By the third time, it was 2:10 and the group from Cedar Falls had to depart back home. Climbing back onto the bus, after a quick run to the gift shop, of course, everyone settled in for a bumpy ride in the now slippery weather. 

The group arrived back at Peet Jr high at 4:25 p.m. and went their separate ways. 

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