Above: ASUM president David McGraw, graduate, counseling; and ASUM vice president Nicolae Butler, senior, political science (Courtesy of David McGraw)

By  Janeece Woodson, Staff Writer

The U.S. government and policymakers have a lot of influence on citizens’ lives. They set minimum wage, decide who can marry, monitor the safety of the food people eat, and protect civil rights in the workplace. Bills have so much say in what the American citizen can do and what they are protected from. Despite this, there remains a gap between students and government because of a lack of student participation. Only an average of 38 percent of eligible Americans ages 18-24 voted during 2012, according to a United States federal census. Fortunately for the University of Missouri community, the Associated Students of the University of Missouri (ASUM) have undertaken the hefty goal of bridging this gap between students and government.

“The purpose of ASUM is to get the student voice to the UM system, and then to the legislator,” said Nicolae Butler, senior, political science, and vice president of the University of Missouri—St. Louis chapter of ASUM. As an officer, Butler works closely with the organization’s president David McGraw, graduate, counseling.

Both McGraw and Butler exemplify how politics are personal. McGraw grew up in St. Louis County and seeks to understand the relations between different groups in such a diverse area. “Being involved in this counseling program has given me a little bit more awareness of social justice,” he said. Butler, who grew up in Bucharest, is captivated by the infrastructure of the United States. “As an international student I find the American government system really fascinating,” he said. “It’s just unique and very stable.” McGraw and Butler both share the optimism that ASUM will be continued by students who truly care about the laws we live under. “ASUM is already stabilized; it has the connections, so basically you come, you relate, you get other people involved.”

Although ASUM has existed for 40 years, McGraw and Butler had many concerns when they first joined. The Kansas City chapter had been inactive for years at that point and “it seemed like everything was just getting started,” said McGraw. Fortunately, ASUM has always had support from faculty and executives; the connections were already there, but ASUM needed students who would lead as links between the university community and those who govern it.

This year, two interns have been trained in policy, briefed on student interests, and work directly with representatives and senators at the Missouri state capitol. These internships are central to the structure of ASUM. “We take the student perspective, and communicate it to the system level, and then to the legislature,” said McGraw. “We do that by taking a survey and hiring interns who serve as lobbyists to push legislation.”

Butler said, “You synthesize an idea; we, the ASUM chapter, take it to those people directly. We don’t pass through the faculty; we take it directly to them. So, we have that connection that other organizations do not have.”

Surveys given on each campus help ASUM to determine what issues students care about, and what the organization’s platform should be comprised of. The concerns of UMSL students vary from year to year, and so it is vital to stay abreast of changing times. Four main topics of interest have recently dominated ASUM’s efforts.

The interns, Nathan Theus, sophomore, political science, and Rachel Dougherty, junior, political science, have become experts in these topics of interest. These include budget allocations, voting rights for the student representatives on the Board of Curators, a STEM initiative for students, and improving relations between landlords and tenants in the St. Louis region, as many tenants are also university students. Another issue that has recently come to light is the problem with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students and tuition. These students are technically American citizens, but are still required to pay high international tuition rates.

After being trained, the 12 interns for the entire university system work to develop policies, communicating frequently with state representatives and senators who will sponsor the bill. The interns become familiar with policy language and the work of lobbyists. They learn what will either kill a bill or propel it forward to be voted upon by the legislators.

One benefit of ASUM is the direct link between the interns and these legislators who have a great amount of say in local government. The legislators not only hear directly from their constituents through the program, but they hear from constituents who are trained in policy. “There’s a lot of people who are politicians who really want to do good things and are trying to do their best within the system,” said McGraw.

As the interns provide a student voice at the state level, the officers work primarily to supplement the voices of individuals on their campus. Butler acknowledged the disinterest of the average student demographic in politics: “They feel this lack of power or ability to change things,” he said. But change is possible, and ASUM has set a precedent for students creating change for their state’s legislation. Earlier this year, interns lobbied for a three percent increase in the state budget for the University of Missouri System. A 1.3 percent growth was decided upon; while this has limitations, the increase has led to millions of dollars added to UM’s budget. With every attempt, ASUM’s participants become more adept at the state’s legislative system and how to maneuver in the favor of their fellow UM students. “[We] see the imperfection as room to grow,” said McGraw.

For more information or details on upcoming events, such as Lobby Day and Lunch With a Legislator, email David McGraw at dkmcgraw@mail.umsl.edu or Nicolae Butler at njb359@mail.umsl.edu. Associated Students of the University of Missouri is also on Facebook, Twitter, and TritonSync.