How to Be an Engaged Citizen

A guide for students prepared by Vanderbilt University’s Division of Government and Community Relations

At Vanderbilt University, freedom of expression is core to our mission, values and beliefs. Through the sharing of ideas, students contribute to our institution’s mission of growth and discovery.




First year Vanderbilt students gather on Martha Rivers Ingram Commons for the class of 2026 photo.

As part of our commitment to free expression, we recognize the importance of sharing your opinions and seeking to shape public policies by influencing others, including policymakers at the local, state and federal levels. To that end, we offer this guide on how you, the student, might engage with policymakers on the policy issues you care most about. You can and should feel empowered to advocate for your interests.

Before You Engage

Students, faculty and staff should be mindful of the following limitations to advocating on behalf of the university which are related to state and federal compliance requirements.

Unless specifically asked to do so by Vanderbilt’s Government Relations team, you must never position yourself as speaking on behalf of the university. If you are interested in specifically engaging on the university’s policy priorities at any level, our team can help assist you with logistics, compliance and messaging.

Note: Contacting the Government Relations team is unnecessary if you are advocating on personal time and on behalf of yourself or a group not officially affiliated with the university.

Step One: Vote

people standing in line to vote in an electionThe first level of being an engaged citizen is to vote. Vanderbilt, Let’s Vote, powered by TurboVote, was created to encourage every member of the university community—students, staff and faculty—to participate in the democratic process and exercise their right to register and vote in federal, state and local elections held in their districts of residence.

TurboVote is a digital tool that powers greater voter access and expands participation in our elections. TurboVote helps America vote in all 50 states and D.C. by providing lifelong voter support across elections—local through national. Every student can access this resource, which helps with:

  • Registration Assistance

    TurboVote connects voters to their state’s online voter registration system and can even fill out a paper registration form for a voter to print and mail.

  • Election Reminders

    Never miss an election again—available in English and Spanish, voters can opt into text or email notifications about upcoming elections.

  • Mail-in Ballot Assistance

    TurboVote eliminates the guesswork of the mail-in voting process by guiding voters on how to request a mail-in ballot in their state.

  • Help Desk

    Voters can reply to any TurboVote notification to connect with the TurboVote team, which provides one-on-one support in both English and Spanish.

Step Two: Contact Your Elected Officials

hand writing down in small white memo notebookAfter you have exercised your right to vote, you may be interested in leveling up your engagement. One way to do that is by contacting your elected official about an issue to voice your opinion. Below are some general best practices when engaging elected officials and further down you will find more detailed information on engaging at each of the three levels of government.

As a general note, the Government Relations team is available to consult and advise students interested in advocating—whether you are engaging independently or on behalf of the university. If you are scheduled to address a legislative body or meet directly with elected or appointed officials, please contact Vanderbilt’s Government Relations team so that we may assist you with logistics and answer any questions.

Top 10 Best Practices for Engaging Elected Officials

  • 1. Know your ask.

    Knowing what you are asking a policymaker to do is crucial.

  • 2. Craft your message.
    • Tell a story. In the words of a proverb often cited by former Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN05), “Tell me a fact, and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth, and I’ll believe. Tell me a story, and I will carry it in my heart forever.”
    • Embrace your personal experience – which contains your best examples of why you care.
    • Avoid jargon. If a technical detail is not essential to your argument, don’t use it.
    • Use the active voice. Passive voice can sound too wordy and indirect.
    • Acknowledge the other side. Your opinion will come across as more credible and balanced.
    • Avoid tedious rebuttals. Mention the opposing opinion once, then argue your case.
  • 3. Clearly define your point of view.

    Can you express it in one or two sentences? Make a single point and do it well.

  • 4. Think carefully about your voice.

    Consider your tone and style. While some may appreciate an impassioned opinion, others may not be as receptive.

  • 5. Consider your audience.

    Who are you talking to? A policymaker? Someone on their staff? Understanding your audience can help you direct your message to the most appropriate person.

  • 6. Tell your audience why they should care.

    Members and staff have an interest in knowing how a policy impacts their constituents.

  • 7. Determine which policymakers to engage.

    It may be your representative is the best place to start, or it might be better to connect with someone on a relevant committee or someone who may be an opponent that you are seeking to influence or sway.

    • Research basic information about the policymaker. Try to identify their priorities. Know how they have voted in the past. If they are opposed, research to understand their perspective.
  • 8. Leverage connections.

    Say who sent you or who you know in common if you think it will help establish a connection and build a relationship. Name-dropping is effective because it makes your request more personal. Don’t be shy in asking your contacts who have relationships with policymakers to make an introduction.

  • 9. Think about timing.

    If legislation is pending you may want to push to meet during the legislative session but if your goal is to provide background consider waiting to reach out when they are less busy during legislative breaks.

    • Know the context in which you are working. Where in the legislative process is this issue you want to advocate for/against? How likely is it to pass? How do other bills relate?
    • Track the news and know what is going on. Timing is critical; your message will be different if the elected official is about to cast a vote or if they simply need to be educated on the issue.
  • 10. Prepare a leave-behind.

    Have some information ready to go in a document that summarizes your point of view and includes your contact information. Have it ready in print or electronic format. 

Advocating at the Federal Level

How do I find out who represents me at the federal level? Who represents Vanderbilt?

Remember many congressional staffers are young professionals themselves, often eager to engage with peers. Approach them as equals in age and enthusiasm, using this common ground to foster open, relatable dialogue about issues that matter to both of you. Make your connection to them personal and tell a story!

Christina West Christina West
Associate Vice Chancellor for Federal Relations

Advocating at the State Level

How do I find out who represents me at the state level? Who represents Vanderbilt?

Remember to always be respectful when interacting with elected officials and members of their staff, especially if you happen to disagree on policy items. The legislative process can take time—be patient and remember that your voice matters!

Daniel Culbreath Daniel Culbreath
Assistant Vice Chancellor for State Government Relations

Advocating at the Local Level

How do I find out who represents me at the local level? Who represents Vanderbilt?

Change begins with local engagement. Embrace the truth that 'All politics is local.' Your voice shapes the future of our community.

Eben Cathey Eben Cathey
Senior Director of Local Government Relations

About GCR

The Government and Community Relations team is responsible for the university’s advocacy work with all branches of government and for fostering and supporting community engagement between campus and community partners. The GCR team sets institutional priorities in consultation with campus leaders, communicates Vanderbilt’s position to elected and appointed officials, and keeps campus informed of legislative or policy actions.