For 38 years, a select group of APA members have spent a year on Capitol Hill as APA congressional fellows, directly participating in the federal legislative process and gaining firsthand knowledge of a world known to many only through news stories and Sunday morning talk shows. APA's congressional fellows also serve as ambassadors to federal policymakers on behalf of psychology.
"Whether addressing issues related to funding for psychological research and training, reimbursement for practitioners or programs to protect the most vulnerable Americans, the federal government plays an integral role in many of the goals that psychologists strive to accomplish each day," says Diane Elmore, PhD, MPH, co-director of the Congressional Fellowship Program and former APA congressional fellow.
The program also gives its fellows a greater understanding of how psychology can inform federal policymaking. "The perspective that psychologists gain helps us contribute effectively to APA's mission of applying psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people's lives," says Kerry Bolger, PhD, who also co-directs the program and is a former fellow.
Here's a look at the experiences of the 2010–11 APA congressional fellows.
Cheri Hoffman, PhD, inaugural Jacquelin Goldman congressional fellow, office of Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.)
Her background: Hoffman graduated with a PhD in community psychology from Vanderbilt University. Before the fellowship, she was lead evaluator at Centerstone Research Institute, where she evaluated a systems of care for children's mental health grant. Hoffman also served as an intern in the Child Welfare League of America's Government Affairs Office. Hoffman says her past experiences proved valuable on Capitol Hill. "[My] background in community psychology [and] skills in consensus building, organizing around a common goal, and facilitating the process of change have been key in moving policy forward," she says.
Her Hill experience: As a fellow in Stark's office, she worked on many issues relevant to psychology, including juvenile justice, children's mental health, child welfare, foster care and the transition from foster care for youth with serious emotional disturbance. Though expressing some frustration with the legislative process, she says she has "been lucky in that kids' issues tend to be one of those things that can gain traction even in divided government, so there has been some progress."
The experience also gave her an appreciation of the power of voters. "One of the best lessons I have taken from the year is that members of Congress do pay attention to what their constituents have to say," she says. "Those phone calls and letters do matter."
Her next step: Hoffman plans to stay on Capitol Hill or move to a federal policy position outside of government. "I feel like national-level policy is where I belong," she says. "Although it is measured in inches rather than miles, I have seen progress over this year on issues that I care about deeply, and I believe that I can continue to be part of that progress on those and other topics."
Sandra Wilkniss, PhD, Catherine Acuff congressional fellow, office of Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.)
Her background: Wilkniss earned her doctoral degree in clinical psychology at the University of Virginia. Before the fellowship, she served as director of the Thresholds Institute, the research and training arm of the Chicago-based community psychosocial rehabilitation organization, Thresholds. In this role, she led the research and training efforts around adopting, implementing and refining evidence-based practices for people with serious mental illness. This prepared her for Capitol Hill in many ways. "The leadership and management skills I honed in this position along with critical thinking, research and clinical skills I've developed throughout my career prepared me well for life on the Hill," she says.
Her Hill experience: Wilkniss chose to work in Bingaman's office for several reasons, including his seniority, knowledgeable staff and assignment on the committees that cover health-care issues. Over the year, she worked on health-care reform implementation (including mental health issues), health issues along the U.S.-Mexico border, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and mental health and Medicaid.
The fellowship, she said, was "fantastic," giving her "a true appreciation for what is meant by policy being shaped by 'five Ps'—policy, politics, procedure, personalities and press." She also appreciated that colleagues welcomed her ability to contribute. "My training and experience as a psychologist were respected and welcome in substantive conversations about legislation, which intersected with my areas of expertise," she said.
Her next steps: In September, Wilkniss began an executive branch fellowship through the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Ultimately, her plans involve continuing to serve those experiencing serious mental illness and working to ensure their empowerment and voice in legislative matters.
Micah Haskell-Hoehl is senior policy associate in APA's Public Interest Government Relations Office.