When Sen. Anitere Flores looked out at the group of FIU Panthers gathered at the state Capitol recently, she felt right at home. A 1997 graduate of FIU and former director of state relations for the university, Flores assured the crowd “she bleeds blue and gold.’’
The door to her Senate office is graced by a large Panther and the FIU logo. Her 6-year-old son Max sported a blue FIU t-shirt while posing for pictures during a reception at the Governor’s Club.
“FIU is a big deal – not only in South Florida but increasingly at the top of our radar for the whole state,’’ said Flores, a two-term senator who chairs the Dade County legislative delegation and the Senate committee on fiscal policy. “We are committed to ensuring FIU is fully funded this year and for generations to come.’’
“Some of my colleagues used to say FIUWho?” she added. “Now, they know.’’
They know in large part because of the work done by Flores and other FIU champions in the legislature such as Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, whose district includes FIU, and Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, a two-time FIU alumna who never lets a moment pass without reminding others, including her South Florida colleagues, about the importance of ensuring FIU gets its fair share of funding.
Last week, the legislators spoke to a delegation of 10 FIU students, seven members of the Board of Trustees and several faculty and administrators who traveled to Tallahassee for FIU Day at the Capitol.
Hosted at the start of the 60-day legislative session each year, the event gives FIU the chance to advocate for key issues such as college affordability, funding for facilities and programs and expansion of the Modesto A. Maidique Campus – the university’s No. 1 priority for the 2015 session.
“We want to do more, not less,’’ he said. “In November, more than 315,000 people – 65 percent of the voters – said FIU has to expand. Our shoulders are broad but we must continue to grow so we can do more.”
In addition to the $20 million FIU is seeking for its expansion, the university has requested $7 million to fund a cluster of programs that serve students and adults with intellectual disabilities, autism, neurological disorders or pediatric mental health issues, as well as former foster care and homeless students.
Collectively known as FIUnique, the programs include the Center for Children and Families, which serves more than 7,000 children and their families each year; FIU EMBRACE, a comprehensive health care program for adults with autism; Project Panther Life, which provides educational opportunities for college-age students with intellectual disabilities; and Fostering Panther Pride, which offers support to former foster care and homeless students.
Expressing her support for FIUnique, Flores called it “one of the shining spots” in this year’s budget.
Jessica Washburn, a former foster care student who spoke to legislators on behalf of Fostering Panther Pride, said the trip was “an eye-opening experience.’’
While waiting to take a photograph with Gov. Rick Scott, Washburn chatted with the president about the political process.
“This is where things get done,’’ she said. “I’m really glad to be here. I want to help make sure we can continue the Fostering Panther Pride program, extend the program and help students who are homeless with housing.’’
During back-to-back meetings, the FIU delegation met with key lawmakers such as Rep. Bryan Avila, another FIU alumnus, Rep. Jose Oliva, Rep. Carlos Trujillo and Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr. They all had one thing in common – each said they have a family member or friend who graduated from FIU.
The group also met with current FIU student and state Rep. Holly Raschein of Key Largo, who is working toward her master’s in public administration. Mary Corbin, a junior majoring in public relations and political science, spoke to Raschein about FIU research.
An avid diver and advocate for coral reef protection, Raschein seemed impressed with the work FIU is doing with sea level rise, said Corbin, who is also chief of staff for FIU’s Student Government Association.
“She said she was glad that FIU was doing so much research in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math),” Corbin said.
Another university priority for the 2015 session is a $2.5 million request for the STEM Transformation Institute, which is changing the way STEM courses are taught by focusing on active learning and modeling in the classroom.
Faculty Senate President and Trustee Kathleen Wilson was part of the FIU Day delegation and said both passage rates and retention in STEM majors have increased as a result of the innovative teaching methods.
She and the other trustees met with about a dozen lawmakers, including Senate President Andy Gardiner, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Rep. Erik Fresen, who chairs the House subcommittee on education appropriations.
In a late afternoon discussion about performance funding, Marshall Criser, chancellor of the State University System, remarked that FIU was “at the top” and had “proved that we could do better.’’
FIU staff briefly interrupted the meeting to serve Cuban coffee, a staple of Miami culture that has become a daily afternoon tradition in the state Capitol.
Trustee Gerald Grant said such personal meetings are essential to keeping legislative support for FIU high.
“We advocate on behalf of our students by personally coming to Tallahassee and telling the FIU story,’’ he said. “It’s all about our students.’’
SGA President and Trustee Alexis Calatayud said it was important for students to tell that story too.
“It’s exciting for us to be able to talk about the things that matter to us like tax exemptions for text books and the expansion of the Bright Futures scholarships,’’ said Calatayud, a senior majoring in political science and international relations. “It’s so meaningful.’’
Mario and Layla Suazo said it was especially meaningful for their daughter Vanessa, who attended FIU Day on behalf of Project Panther Life, which supports students with intellectual disabilities. The program has received strong support from the state in recent years.
“For a campus with 54,000 students, it is a privilege that they chose my daughter to speak to the Legislature,’’ Mario Suazo said. “I think we all made enough noise today for the great programs at FIU that need our legislators’ support.’’
To view FIU’s 2015 legislative priorities, visit the Office of Governmental Relations website.