Early on a beautiful spring morning in the nation’s capital, a group of Georgetown University undergraduates gathered on the corner of First Street and Constitution Avenue, far from their textbooks and thoughts of their looming final exams. Their unusual study break? A day of meetings with congressional offices to advocate against cuts to critical U.S. government funding for global health.

These students – several of them officers of the Georgetown University END7 chapter – were part of a group of 25 undergraduate and graduate students to travel from across town and across the country for the third annual Student Advocacy Day focused on neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). The event was organized by the Sabin Vaccine Institute’s END7 campaign with support from Uniting to Combat NTDs and members of the NTD Roundtable, including the Task Force for Global Health, RTI International and Helen Keller International.

This year’s third annual Student Advocacy Day started with a morning briefing featuring experts from NTD advocacy, programming and research organizations. The briefing opened with END7’s video “Celebrating an American Legacy” produced with footage from END7 student advocates from around the world to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) NTD Program. Michelle Brooks, Head of Policy and Advocacy, United States at Uniting to Combat Neglected Tropical Diseases Support Centre, followed with an overview of the USAID NTD Program and its accomplishments, highlighting why cuts to the program included in President Trump’s budget blueprint released in March would be so damaging to the global effort to control and eliminate NTDs. 

Kalpana Bhandari, Senior Monitoring and Evaluation Associate for the ENVISION Project at RTI International then gave an inspiring personal take on the fight against NTDs, recalling the experience of being infected with intestinal worms as a young child in Nepal and sharing stories of her aunt who works there to help run NTD treatment programs on the ground. Zeina Sifri, Senior Technical Advisor, Morbidity Management and Disability Prevention Project at Helen Keller International followed with a fascinating look at how the USAID NTD Program is helping to train medical professionals to perform surgeries and run comprehensive programs to prevent disability and morbidity from NTDs like trachoma and lymphatic filariasis.

The briefing closed with an “Advocacy Nuts and Bolts” session to run over the key messages students would deliver in their afternoon advocacy meetings. After breaking into small groups led by experienced global health professionals, students walked to the Dirksen Senate Office Building for lunch and the chance to practice their pitch with their group before fanning out across the Hill for a total of 23 meetings with congressional offices.

Shangir Siddique, a graduate student at the University of Texas Health Science Center who was awarded a travel scholarship to attend Advocacy Day, described his group’s approach to meetings with the staff of Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY),  Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT): “As part of our ‘pitch’ we explained what the USAID NTD Program has achieved since its creation under President George W. Bush and how the United States’ investment in global health, specifically the USAID NTD Program, is a smart use of resources that saves lives and enables effective foreign policy Latin America, Asia and Africa. Fortunately, the unanimous response from all three offices was great support towards maintaining the U.S.'s current position as a leader in global health. I found this to be extremely interesting, considering the differences between the three offices – both by political party affiliation and by which chamber of congress in which the member served. It was heartening to realize that partisanship is not strong enough to interfere with our country’s long history of global leadership in public health and medical interventions, innovation and advancement.” 

Fellow scholarship winner Bethany Summerford, a first-year medical student at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, had a similar experience: “Even though [my group met with] offices from many different states (and different political parties)…they all agreed on how important it is to maintain the current level of funding for global health and development. It was refreshing and encouraging to hear their support for continuing the fight to eliminate NTDs.” 

After a long afternoon of meetings, students gathered on the east façade of the Capitol Building for a group picture, abuzz with excitement from their conversations with policymakers and their staff.

They carried their conversations into the Capitol Building itself for a closing reception in a historic meeting room. Loyce Pace, President and Executive Director of the Global Health Council, shared remarks highlighting the importance of grassroots advocacy in the effort to protect global health funding in a difficult budget environment: “I can’t tell you how much [professional advocates] hear when we’re on the Hill, ‘We want to hear from the grassroots, we want to hear from people from our communities and our states.’ It means a lot for you guys to show up and be counted and be heard.”

Between filling up on refreshments and reflecting on their day, students also had the chance to view the official Guinness World Record recently awarded to Uniting to Combat NTDs partners for “most medication donated in 24 hours” and watch an inspiring video about the effort behind the award.

All in all, the 2017 Student Advocacy Day was an exciting opportunity for the next generation of global health policymakers and practitioners to make their voices heard in Washington as lawmakers make critical decisions about global health spending. The consensus between students and the representatives they met with of both chambers of Congress – and both parties – was strong: supporting cost-effective, high-impact global health initiatives like the USAID NTD Program is a smart investment – and a reflection of the best of America’s values.

 

Read Advocacy Day reflections from travel scholarship winners: