If Capitol Hill hears from Knoxville this fall, it may not only be strains of Rocky Top on Saturday afternoons.
UT Advocacy, a growing grassroots network made up of students, alumni, faculty and staff, is working to increase and strengthen UT's voice in the state government.
"In the past, UT officials have said 'Don't worry students, we'll take care of the lawmakers,'" Terry Nowell, SGA vice president said. "UT Advocacy establishes a network of students that are able to lobby to those lawmakers."
The program launched in February of this year at the Alumni Legislative Council, but the idea stems from alumni and system-wide UT organizations.
"The need for advocacy is widely recognized by both the alumni and the system," Carey Smith, assistant director for advocacy in the UT Office of Government Relations and Advocacy, said.
One of the first projects they have undertaken is a survey, administered to all legislative candidates running in the November general elections. The questions on the survey focus on issues of higher education, such as guns on campus and funding.
According to advocacy.tennessee.edu, the homepage of UT Advocacy, the survey asks questions like "Would you oppose or favor efforts to cap, freeze, or place other constraints upon tuition?"
"The survey is something that we wanted to do for the general election," Smith said. "Quite often on the campaign trail, these questions don't get asked."
Survey results will be posted on Oct. 1, in time for constituents to review before early voting opens on Oct. 17. Smith hopes the candidates' answers resonate with voters.
"It's up to the individual how this information informs their voting in November," Smith said.
Although the survey is a big project for UT Advocacy, the group looks forward to January when the new legislative session begins. The office tracks 800-900 bills, lobbying for UT and post-secondary education in general.
"Once legislators make the connection that UT issues are also constituent issues, we can really start to change the conversation about higher education in Tennessee," Smith said.
SGA and UT administration recognize the student relevance of issues that may come up on Capitol Hill. One such issue, smoking on college campuses, has surfaced as a national hot button topic in recent years, with schools like the University of Florida going tobacco free. Currently, Tennessee law prevents campuses from banning tobacco. Although SGA does not neccessarily want to ban smoking, the law constrains its ability to investigate the issue further.
"We want to work with UT Advocacy to enact legislation to repeal that law and allow UT administration and students to make this decision for ourselves," Nowell said.
The sentiment of localized decision-making flows into other matters, such as guns on campus. No legislation is on the floor currently, but if it appears, Nowell believes that UT Advocacy can help students take the power into their own hands.
"We on campus need to be able to decide, not the legislators in Nashville," Nowell said.
Improving student input not only empowers the students themselves, but it also helps the University as a whole.
"It strengthens the University's position on Capitol Hill to have advocates speak out on issues that impact UT," Smith said.
She understands the desire for more influence that many students feel. She graduated from UT in 2011 with a degree in political science, followed by a 2012 master's degree in public administration. During her time on Rocky Top, she worked as a member of SGA's executive committee and was an active sister of ADPi.
"This is something students have wanted to do for a long time, but there was no mechanism; UT Advocacy is that mechanism," she said.
Students interested in UT Advocacy can sign up online at http://advocacy.tennessee.edu/speakout. Any interest, whether it be writing to representatives or recruiting others to advocate for UT, will be put to use. For more information, Follow @UTAdvocator or like UT Advocacy on Facebook.