March 6, 2017

University Course students meet with legislators during visit to General Assembly

Students from a University Course on the nation’s health care policies spent an immersive day at the Tennessee State Capitol recently, meeting with legislators and discussing issues.

Members of the “The Nation’s Health” University Course pose before the Tennessee State Capitol during their recent day on the hill. (Vanderbilt University)

by Christian Anderson

When Tara McKay and Gilbert Gonzales designed their University Course, The Nation’s Health: From Policy to Practice, they knew a trip to the Tennessee state legislature would be a key component of the curriculum. That vision became a reality on Feb. 22, when the two took their students to the Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville for an immersive “day on the hill” experience.

Taught by Gonzales, an assistant professor of health policy in the School of Medicine, and McKay, assistant professor of medicine, health and society in the College of Arts and Science, The Nation’s Health prepares Vanderbilt students to be effective participants in debates over health policy by engaging them in the health policy environment and teaching them how to critically address preconceived ideas about health.

Sen. Richard Briggs meets with Gilbert Gonzales and students from “The Nation’s Health” University Course. (Vanderbilt University)

University Courses, an initiative of the Academic Strategic Plan, provide Vanderbilt students with the opportunity to engage in innovative and impactful courses focused on some of society’s grand challenges. The courses are taught by faculty members with divergent viewpoints.

The trip to the state legislature is the most recent example of immersion for students in The Nation’s Health course. In January, Gonzales and a group of students made an impromptu visit to observe a demonstration during Gov. Bill Haslam’s State of the State speech to the members of the Tennessee General Assembly. The course also has included discussions with guest lecturers, drafting policy briefs, writing and effectively pitching opinion pieces to the media, and collecting, analyzing and interpreting real data to make informed recommendations.

“Our visit to the state legislature gave students a hands-on experience for learning health care policy and politics,” Gonzales said. “We met with several state legislators to discuss current issues in health care policy—from repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act to medical marijuana laws. Watching students interact with state legislators proved to me that they’re ready to enter this arena more confidently and are better able to discuss complex health care issues.”

Rep. John Ray Clemmons greets students during their visit to Capitol Hill. (Vanderbilt University)

During their trip to Legislative Plaza, students met with eight legislators, observed a committee meeting and ate lunch with legislative aides during a fast-paced four hours. The legislators were: Sen. Richard Briggs of Knoxville, Rep. John Ray Clemmons of Nashville, Rep. Sabi Kumar of Springfield, Sen. Becky Duncan Massey of Knoxville, Rep. Joe Pitts of Clarksville, Rep. Eddie Smith of Knoxville, Rep. Johnnie Turner of Memphis, and Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville,

“I was impressed with the way the students researched their issues, connected their concerns to particular pieces of legislation and went into meetings with legislators as experts with evidence for and against current proposals in committee,” McKay said. “Having a real audience here made the difference.”

Prior to the trip, students prepared briefs that were circulated by legislators to their committees. They also provided new information and opportunities for legislators to use to strengthen support of their own legislation.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro (far right) met with three small groups of students during “The Nation’s Health” University Course’s day on the hill project. (Vanderbilt University)

For example, Chelsea Edwards, a graduate student in Peabody’s Community Development and Action program, researched proposed legislation restricting voting rights of previously incarcerated adults in Tennessee. During the trip, she discussed this bill directly with Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville, including sharing a study that showed voting rights restrictions had negatively affected health policy decisions in minority communities.

“Being able to connect one on one with a legislator who is just as passionate on a particular issue as I am was rewarding and satisfying,” Edwards said. “It goes to show that our interests as students and constituents are just as important.”

“Visiting the State Capitol really highlighted for me the accessibility of our legislators and the importance of giving your input in the policymaking process,” said Télyse Masaoay, a sophomore double-majoring in sociology and medicine, health and society. “Laws that affect us are made right in our backyard, and I was encouraged by the representatives that met with my group, who seemed very receptive to our ideas.”

Vanderbilt Assistant Professor Tara McKay asks a question during a meeting with legislators at “The Nation’s Health” day on the hill. (Vanderbilt University)

Students also met with Rep. Johnnie Turner of Memphis to share their research and views on proposed legislation pertaining to housing, same-sex marriage, food stamps, and noncitizen driver’s licenses. Turner, a civil rights advocate, encouraged students to come back and help draft new, well-researched bills during the next cycle.

Gonzales termed the visit a success for the students. “In class, we have discussed the role of political institutions and stakeholders in the health policy process, but sometimes discussing and testing central themes in class may not be enough to instill lifelong lessons,” he said. “Taking the students out of the classroom and into committee rooms with legislators who are debating these issues was an eye-opening experience for all involved.”