The Study of the U.S. Institutes (SUSI) Public Policy and Government Leadership students learned a new term during their visit to Capitol Hill: “fly-in.” In their introductory session, Brad Fitch of the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) explained that a “fly-in” is an orchestrated visit to numerous congressional offices by a large group of people from the same organization or association on the same day. Organization members or representatives often literally “flew-in” to Washington to visit their Senators and Representatives and talk about issues.
This particular “fly-in” was one for the record books. Eighty SUSI student leaders hailing from fourteen different countries from Central Asia to the Caribbean visited Capitol Hill on four separate days in late July to observe how a legislative office in the U.S. operates on a day-to-day basis. Starting with a brief orientation led by CMF in Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s press room, students divided into small groups to spend their day shadowing staffers in different congressional offices. They posed questions to legislative aides and committee and leadership staff, toured the House and Senate Office Buildings, and observed constituent meetings.
Nearly a third of all eighty SUSI participants met a Member of Congress. Many had lengthy, intimate discussions with their Member about the legislative process and their own professional background and experience. Representative John Lewis (GA-05), one of the most important leaders of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s, met personally with Paloma Nunez Fernandez from the Dominican Republic. Representative Jared Polis (CO-02) wanted to continue his conversation with SUSI student Abdus Miya from Nepal, so he invited him to dinner with a couple staff members.
The visits inspired SUSI participants as they came to see the diverse backgrounds, professions, and worldviews that make up the U.S. Congress. Rimu Byadya from Bangladesh and Cherry Poe from Burma spent several hours in the office of Representative Jackie Speier (CA-14). The Congresswoman herself presented the pair with copies of her book, and sat down to talk with just the two of them about careers in politics. Afterwards, Rimu said, “I think I’ve just found a new hero.” SUSI student Devi Pirtskhalaishvili from Georgia took similar inspiration from his meeting with Representative Adam Kinzinger (IL- 16), who had visited Devi’s home country and wanted to hear his thoughts on major differences in government between Georgia and the U.S.
Meridian International Center staff, with the assistance of the Congressional Management Foundation, placed all eighty SUSI participants in congressional offices for four separate Capitol Hill Days during the last week of July. Meridian administers the SUSI Public Policy and Government Leadership program, working with George Mason University, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, University of Massachusetts-Amherst Donahue Institute, and Virginia Commonwealth University as host university partners.
Students took an interest in numerous aspects of the legislative process, right down to the everyday details of running an office. Several inquired about how offices designed budgets and allocated resources. Others noted the responsiveness of office staff to constituent concerns as a major difference between legislators in their country and those in the U.S. For many, the idea of having sufficient staff to monitor issues in the district and meet with constituents was surprising. Even the idea that foreign exchange students like themselves could get an audience with a Member of Congress, ask policy questions, and even review federal budgets showed a remarkable level of transparency.
At the end of the day, each SUSI group strolled around the U.S. Capitol grounds, snapping photos of the towering dome, clearly energized and invigorated by their time on the Hill. As students began to talk about their own desire to run for office and push for positive change, one thing was clear: the epic SUSI “fly-in” was a resounding success.