We recently spoke with Marc Cohen, the Senior Director of External Relations for the SUNY Student Assembly, about their recent lobby day at the state capitol. Please tell us your name and current position with the SUNY Student Assembly. Please also tell us a little bit about who you are: your year, area of study, any other background info you’d like to share. My name is Marc Cohen. I’m a Junior at the University at Albany studying Political Science and Philosophy, and the Senior Director of External Relations for the SUNY Student Assembly. I also serve the University at Albany Student Association as Vice President. How did you get involved with student government and with the SUNY SA? Last year (2014-2015) I ran and won the seat to represent the University at Albany and the University of Buffalo on the Executive Committee of the SUNY Student Assembly. By serving on various committees, councils and task forces during my time in that position, I gained quite a bit of insight into SUNY programs, University initiatives and the inner workings of the Student Assembly. I felt that SUNY SA was something that could allow me to help in affecting change and representing the students of the State University of New York, so I applied for a Senior Director position on the Cabinet, and was appointed by President Mould last summer. Please describe the SUNY SA. What does it do? How does it function? The Student Assembly of the State University of New York (SUNY SA) is comprised of student leaders elected by their peers from across SUNY’s 64 campuses. SUNY SA is an incredibly important organization as it is recognized by the State of New York as the official representative of SUNY students. We are contacted regularly by the chancellor’s office, the campuses, the media, and individual students for input on a variety of issues. Within SUNY SA, each school is allotted a certain number of delegates based on their size (the student body President and one additional delegate for every 4,000 students). These delegates are elected by each respective student body. The delegates elect representatives to be their voice on the Executive Committee. These delegates are also responsible for attending two meetings each year to hear the resolutions passed by the Executive Committee, elect the leadership, and debate important issues facing students. The next tier of representation is the Executive Cabinet. The Executive Cabinet is comprised of Senior Directors and Directors who serve at the discretion of the President. As Senior Director of External Relations, I oversee Government Relations and Communications and serve as a Senior Adviser to the President on policy issues. There is also a Senior Director of Campus Relations who coordinates the Representatives and a Senior Director of University Wide Success who works on Diversity and Inclusion, Academic Affairs, Military Affairs, and Environmental Sustainability. There are Directors for Government Relations, Communications, Environmental Sustainability, Equity and Inclusion, and Veteran Affairs. There are also two Associate Directors for Government Relations – one for State Operated Campuses and one for Community Colleges. The final level of representation is the Executive Board, elected by the delegates at the Spring Convention. This Board has a President, Vice President, Secretary and Treasurer. What are some of the priority issues that the SUNY SA is working on? Among other advocacy efforts, the Student Assembly is currently focusing on rational tuition, increases in the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), textbook affordability, community college base aid, child care center funding, and funding for the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). What kind of presence does the SUNY SA have in the legislature? How do you go about trying to influence policy? The Student Assembly advocates regularly. This last semester, I testified twice before the legislature along with a few colleagues, first to encourage increases in TAP and most recently to advocate for a restoration of funding to the EOP program. We also hosted SUNY Speaks Up, a day of advocacy at the State Capitol where students from schools across the system came to speak out for issues they care about. Please describe SUNY Speaks Up? SUNY Speaks Up is an advocacy day where we invite students from across the system to come advocate for items on our legislative agenda (voted on by delegates at the fall conference). Major issues this year were textbook affordability and funding for campus programs (capital projects, etc.). There were about 25 students who participated this year. We got a great response from legislators. From the meetings I was in personally, the legislators were receptive and willing to either co-sponsor existing legislation supporting our initiatives or take steps to introduce legislation. A member also pledged to write a letter to the chancellor asking her to investigate the increasing and overbearing cost of textbooks. What have been the biggest challenges so far in trying to advocate for students? Lessons learned? Breaking through the bureaucracy can be incredibly difficult. Legislators are usually willing to take a meeting with SUNY SA leadership, but how much is getting through? We find that by making tangible requests like asking them for a letter of support or to co-sponsor legislation, we are likely to see more results. What advice would you give to student leaders at other schools who want to start a legislative advocacy program? Be persistent. The vast majority of decisions are made by just a few people in a back room – be it where to send funds for capital investment or which school should be allocated additional funding for aid or restoration of programs. The power of SUNY students is spectacular. We are almost half a million voices. By working with your local student governments to draft resolutions or memos or letters of support for an issue, and sending the finished product to your legislator, you can make a difference. Ask questions, make requests, and be tenacious. Remember, the worst you can get is a “no.”