Over 70 students representing colleges and universities across Pennsylvania visited the Governor’s Residence in Harrisburg on Monday, Jan. 22, for Gov. Josh Shapiro’s inaugural College Day of Action. The event brought together student government presidents, student journalists, advocates and college influencers for a day of networking and learning.
“You were invited because you get s**t done on your campuses,” Gavin Lichtenstein, director of Digital Partnerships in the Office of the Governor and organizer of the event, said, using the bold mantra of Gov. Shapiro. “You get it done in student governments and in groups. You get so much s**t done the governor saw it.”
Shapiro and his administration have built this ambitious attitude for how they want to run Pennsylvania. Shapiro wanted to recognize young Pennsylvanians in college who share this mindset by creating a space to have them at the table and facilitating conversations.
Among these go-getters were four students representing Shippensburg University: Ethan Bauman, Harun Pacavar, Aidan Piper and Allyson Ritchey. Bauman, Piper and Ritchey are all interns with the Governor’s office. Pacavar serves as the president of SU’s Student Government Association.
“I think as a student I’m excited to see the governor and his administration work to connect with younger voices and advocates who will be the future of our government,” Piper said of College Day of Action. “Getting involved in government is often thought of as only for elected officials and older people but that isn’t true. Everyone should have a voice at the table and be given the opportunity to get involved.”
Piper has been a communications intern in the Office of the Governor since August 2023. As a leader, he also served as the president of SU bands until December.
“The Governor’s College Day of Action was a great example of students, advocates and younger people coming together to talk about issues we are facing and how to proceed but also how to get involved and remain involved in topics that are of importance to us,” Piper continued.
College Day of Action allowed students from across the Commonwealth to talk with Shapiro who shared his college story. A freshman at the University of Rochester, Shapiro failed his first medical school exam and was cut from the basketball team on the same day. Someone recommended he run for his student senate. Shapiro ended up running against four juniors for the president position and winning as a freshman.
“Always be open to that other door you didn’t even think of,” Shapiro urged the young attendees of College Day of Action. Shapiro also discussed recent policies benefitting Pennsylvanians and answered audience questions regarding gun violence, minimum wage and recreational marijuana.
In a private interview with student media representatives from The Snapper from Millersville University and The Slate from Shippensburg University, Shapiro talked on the importance of young people in Pennsylvania.
“I think your voices really matter,” Shapiro explained. “Every time I get together with college students, I learn something. That allows us to work even harder and more effectively for young folks in Pennsylvania.”
Shapiro has long understood the importance of young perspectives in government, having spent a “great deal of time” going to college campuses and listening to Generation Z during his campaign. He also created the Commission on Next Generation Engagement. Shapiro’s dedication to youth starts before college-aged Pennsylvanians with a historic investment in public schools.
“We invested more money than ever before in our schools, and not just in their bottom-line budgets, but in addressing big challenges,” Shapiro said. “We created $100 million funds for schools to hire mental health counselors and provide more mental health resources. We provide universal, free breakfast now, so no child should have to learn on an empty stomach.”
For young adult constituents, Shapiro explained that it is “really important” to make college funding affordable and accessible. When asked what how he plans to help fund the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), which has seen a 30 percent decrease in enrollment in this past decade, Shapiro said. “We’re going to propose a dramatic change in a good way.”
Four days after College Day of Action, Shapiro announced a plan that proposes a massive overhaul of the higher education system in Pennsylvania that ranks 48th for affordability. This plan would see three distinct changes, including uniting PASSHE university and 15 state community colleges under a new governance system, capping tuition and fees in this new system for Pennsylvanians making up to the median income at $1,000, and funding universities on performance-based metrics.
The Democratic governor will give more details in his budget address on Feb. 6. In his address last year, Shapiro said it is time “to rethink our system of higher education because what we’re doing isn’t working.”
With College Day of Action, Shapiro hopes that students realize the power of their voices. He hopes that this has a multiplying effect so “we can engage more young people.”
Organized by the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Next Generation Engagement, College Day of Action additionally featured a series of panel discussions with topics ranging from gun and reproductive rights policy, artificial intelligence and social media advocacy. Several leaders from the Shapiro Administration spoke on these panels, the first of whom were Bryanna Pardoe and Will Simons.
Pardoe serves as the Executive Director of the Commonwealth Office of Digital Experience (CODE PA). This newly-created office aims to help Pennsylvanians connect with state agencies in effective, accessible ways by using innovative technology. Pardoe urged the importance of being equitable in digital access to reach all Pennsylvanians.
When asked about how CODE PA ensures those with disabilities have the same access to Pennsylvania’s digital spheres, Pardoe explained that PA’s websites are manually tested in multiple ways and that accessibility is “built throughout the way, not an afterthought.” Pardoe and the rest of the CODE PA team tests PA websites for screen reader compatibility, intuition, easily read colors and navigation between buttons.
Simons is the director of communications in the Office of the Governor and spoke on the importance of his work.
Additional governmental panelists at the event include Amanda Warren, Director of External Affairs in the Office of the Governor, Katie Merrit, Assistant Secretary of the Government Policy Office, and Steve D’Ettore, Executive Deputy Secretary of Policy and Planning.
After lunch, attendees listened to two PA-based influencers speak on their experiences. Jasiri X, co-founder and CEO of 1 Hood Media, and Santiago Ortiz-Landazabal, founder and CEO of No Shorts Media, talked about the power of social media.
Students in attendance at the inaugural College Day of Action were given homework by the several speakers: raise concerns to the legislature, don’t be shy to reach out and call mentors to thank them.