Public Policy Class Connects Students with Legislators on Issues Important to Them
Posted February 10, 2022
Each semester, a group of students in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy are assigned a unique final exam. Instead of sitting for a test, they sit down with a government official and advocate for an issue that’s important to them, or they volunteer with a nonprofit working for the same cause. These students are enrolled in POL 2101: State and Local Government and have spent the entire semester studying an issue of their choosing and trying to find the best solution for it.
Former state lawmaker Michael Polak, BS IE ‘84, teaches the class. Polak was supposed to return to Georgia Tech as the first Ph.D. student in the School of Public Policy. But instead, he was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1993, and then moved to the State Senate in 1998. After serving 10 years in the legislature, he retired in 2002.
More than a decade later, Polak, then a School of Public Policy Advisory Board member, told his colleagues at Georgia Tech about a class he had taught on state and local government at Armstrong University in Savannah. This sparked an idea to revive a similar one within the School of Public Policy. Polak began teaching POL 2101 in 2013, as an adjunct professor and has been here ever since.
“One of the goals of the class is for students to find something that they’re passionate about,” Polak said. “If you’re passionate about something, you can work to change it.”
Polak’s students begin the semester by pinpointing an issue of interest to them. It must be an issue that the student finds unjust and can be handled by state or local government. This can range from housing policies to school funding to rural healthcare. From there, students do foundational research to build out a problem definition for their topic before coming up with as many solutions as possible. They then narrow the list down to a final five, and then a final one. Next, it’s time to test, validate, and advocate for their solution, including finding the right people to talk to about implementing it.
“So many students come back from meeting with legislators and say, ‘I didn’t know they would listen to me,’ even if the legislators completely disagree with them,” Polak said. “And I tell them that people will listen because they respect the Institute and the quality of the students coming out of it.”
Polak estimates that roughly two-thirds of his students each semester decide to advocate to state legislators and elected officials directly. The other third opts to volunteer with a relevant nonprofit or campus organization. In total, over 90 government officials have helped Yellow Jackets in POL 2101 test and validate their chosen issues and solutions. Some even invite students down to the Capitol for face-to-face meetings; last semester, industrial engineering major Anna Holloway met with Speaker of the House David Ralston. Students have contacted many more officials at the state and local level and appealed to them to support their proposed positions.
Some students have seen substantial public policy changes as a result of their advocacy efforts. In 2013, senior Sean Poole — a POL 2101 student and punter for the Georgia Tech football team — took on a cause that was personal to him.
Poole knew from watching his niece struggle to get the care she needed that insurance companies were not required to provide appropriate services for people with autism. At the time, lawmakers were beginning to debate “Ava’s Law,” a bill to mandate coverage for such care. Advocates had been lobbying for such a bill for years, and Poole decided to join them. He reached out to such companies as The Home Depot and Coca-Cola to see if they would join in fighting for Ava’s Law. Poole continued working with these corporate partners after he completed POL 2101. In 2015, lawmakers passed the bill, and former Gov. Nathan Deal signed it into law.
This year, Polak expects that some students will want to shape their advocacy efforts around some of the key ballot issues likely to surface in the 2022 mid-term elections. He will also teach them about the ins and outs of campaigns, as the class includes a section where students simulate running either for governor or mayor of Atlanta.
No matter what issue they choose or how they work to advance their solution, Polak hopes that all POL 2101 students are empowered to tackle the problems of both today and tomorrow.
As Polak says to all of his students, “You are the best in the world at solving problems, so solve the problems of the world.”
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