Training to Make a Positive Impact: The Student PIRG Fellowship

Dec 26, 2019
Julia McLaughlin, center, lobbying in California for a bill in the state legislature that would commit the state to 100% clean energy by 2045

Students are often at the forefront of movements to build a better future for our country. Whether or not those students make real progress depends on whether they are organized, have the skills to be effective and have a strategic plan to get things done. The Student PIRG Fellowship makes sure they do.

The Student PIRGs have been working for more than 40 years to amplify the power of student activism and help students make real change, right now. We all want to live meaningful lives and have a future that’s greener and healthier. By recruiting, training and working alongside student activists on campaigns that get results, our organizers are helping to build that future today. 

Our chapters on 35 campuses provide the training, professional support and resources students need to tackle climate change, protect public health, revitalize our democracy, feed the hungry and more. Our organizers provide students the training and resources they need to become movement leaders by recruiting volunteers, training potential leaders to take on more responsibility, and doing campaign work themselves.

The target annual compensation for this position is $27,500 in the first year. Each of the groups that partner with the Student PIRGs offers a competitive benefits package. We also offer an excellent training program and opportunities for advancement.

We talked to Julia McLaughlin, a Student PIRG alumna and current Assistant Organizing Director for PIRG Fellows in Massachusetts and Connecticut, to learn more about the program and get some application tips.  

1. What inspired you to apply for the Student PIRG Fellowship? 

I got my start with the Student PIRGs when I was a student at UMass Amherst. It was my freshman year of college, and after being involved in service work in high school, I wanted to continue working in the community on issues I cared about. I joined the MASSPIRG Hunger and Homelessness campaign, coordinating students to volunteer at a local homeless shelter. I cared a lot about hunger and poverty issues because of the experiences I had while doing mission work with my youth group in high school.  By the time I started learning about all the other issues facing our country, and how special interests were a big reason why we had these problems to begin with, I wanted to do more. 

I wasn’t a political person but felt that I needed to be involved with politics to make a bigger change. I joined our nonpartisan New Voters Project campaign to help register students to vote and turn them out to the polls. I thought that if I could mobilize young people to vote on issues, I could make a bigger difference politically. From that campaign, I learned a lot of skills like recruiting a team of people, delegating responsibility, training volunteers, and running weekly meetings. And, of course, I learned how to help register students to vote! It was a pretty successful campaign – we helped register 2,443 students to vote at UMass Amherst. I could see that the work that I was doing was making an impact. When I went to the polls, I saw so many young people voting that I was inspired by student power and knew I wanted to do this type of work when I graduated. 

2. What types of campaigns were you involved in as a Student PIRG Fellow and how did the program help you make a positive impact? 

During my first year on staff, I moved to California and worked as the CALPIRG Campus Organizer at UC Riverside. It was August 2017, and we were working to pass SB100, a bill in the state legislature that would commit the state to 100% clean energy by 2045. For months, our student chapters across the state worked to build up support to win. Unfortunately, the bill didn’t even come to a vote, and, at the last minute, utility companies and electrical unions worked to push it back to the following session. Our statewide board of directors was pretty disappointed but wanted to continue our clean energy effort. When the bill was reintroduced the following year, we ran a huge grassroots campaign, organizing 20,000 UC college students to sign petitions, passing 8 resolutions through student governments and making hundreds of phone calls into legislators’ offices in support of the bill.

In Riverside, the students I worked with were targeting Assemblymember Medina, a key swing vote for the bill. He was not prioritizing clean energy in his agenda, and it was pretty clear to our coordinators in lobby meetings that he wouldn’t commit to voting yes. We re-worked our strategy and ran a big grassroots effort on campus. We signed up thousands of students as dues-paying members in support of the bill and generated dozens of photo petitions that we tweeted at Medina from students holding signs asking him to vote in support. In August 2018, when the bill was in the assembly, I worked with the student coordinators to recruit volunteers to continue to call into his office leading up to the vote. We called so much that his voicemail filled up. And after a two-year-long student-run push, we found out that we passed SB100 out of the Assembly and Assemblymember Medina voted yes. A couple of months later, the Governor signed the bill and it became one of the strongest global warming laws in the country. 

3. What are the benefits of the fellowship? 

There are a lot! For one thing, we have an excellent training program. The Student PIRGs, along with the Public Interest Network, prioritize training our staff. In the first year, our entry-level staff go to three national or regional trainings, combining classroom-style overviews with hands-on practice. Throughout the year, we run many other trainings, from formal regional meetings to on-the-ground training from a staff director.

Training is a big part of the job. I think for me this part of our program always made sense because I was involved as a student and received a lot of training from my organizer. She believed in me and helped me grow as a leader and activist by providing me with tangible feedback and real skills. With the type of work we do, organizing college students to make social change, ongoing training is critical because it is often the difference between a strategic and winning a campaign and an unsuccessful one.  

4. How has the fellowship experience influenced your current work? 

Currently, I work as the Assistant Organizing Director for MASSPIRG and CONNPIRG Students, overseeing campus organizers who work with students at colleges in Massachusetts and Connecticut. All of the skills and training I received from my organizer years, and time as a student, helped prepare me to take on leadership this year to manage staff and drive program in New England. Right now in Massachusetts, we’re working to pass the Act for 100% Renewable Energy, a bill similar to SB100, that would commit the state to 100% clean energy by 2045. In this role, I’m trying to use the success we had in California to train the organizers to be strategic and win this campaign in another state!

5. What tips would you give others applying to the Student PIRG Fellowship? 

I think the biggest advice I can give to others applying is to be open to doing the hard thing. Organizing is not a conventional job. People usually apply to this job because they want to make an impact on issues they care about. There are many ways people can make change, but we always need more organizers. Doing this work is hard, but it’s rewarding and effective. We’re looking for people who are ready for the challenge and are excited to make the biggest impact possible. If you’re passionate about making a difference and want to work with college students to make them activists, you should apply for the Student PIRGs!

Julia McLaughlin is the Assistant Organizing Director for MASSPIRG and CONNPIRG Students. She grew up south of Boston and got her start in environmentalism as a teenager, working for the Green Committee in her high school where she expanded composting efforts. Junior year, she won the Rachel Carson Book Award and the Hingham Town Hero Award, for her passion and commitment to protecting the environment. 

In college, she got involved with the Student PIRGs at UMass Amherst where she studied English and French. She spent her first two years on full-time staff as a campus organizer at UC Riverside and UCLA with CALPIRG Students, working to help successfully pass SB100, a state bill committing California to 100% clean electricity by 2045. In her free time, she enjoys cooking with her friends and spending time outdoors.

Interested in applying? Bookmark the Student PIRG Fellowship to your ProFellow account.

© Victoria Johnson 2019, all rights reserved.