Say the word “politics” and you’ll likely get a number of responses, some of them negative. The term carries a lot of baggage, both warranted and not. At times it feels as if the word is a catch-all, a stand-in for government and our perception of those in power. However, say the word “politics” to UW Tacoma junior Armen Papyan and you get a very different answer.
Papyan is the Director of Legislative Affairs for the Associated Students of UW Tacoma. In this position he works with the university’s legislative liaison to lobby the state government on behalf of UW Tacoma students. “I really enjoy this role because I can help people get their voices heard,” said Papyan.
Papyan turned to politics not long after moving to the United States from Armenia. The then-13-year-old lived with his grandparents in Tukwila. He knew little English and struggled to connect with classmates. “I was really lonely,” he said. “I didn’t have any friends.” A teacher encouraged Papyan to get involved with planning a school dance. He did. It’s hard to say if deciding on decorations and music piqued his interest but Papyan never looked back. The dance led to other volunteer opportunities and a burgeoning network of friends and acquaintances, and eventually his election as junior class vice president.
Papyan made his first trip to the state capital during high school. He traveled to Olympia to advocate for the Homeless Student Stability Program, which expands support for homeless K-12 students, addressing issues such as transportation and housing. “I got a chance to talk directly with the governor,” said Papyan. The state legislature originally wanted to cut $300,000 from the project but ultimately decided to fully fund the program.
This initial visit to the capital became a regular occurrence for Papyan. He’s made the sojourn south for the past six years to discuss different issues with elected representatives. Papyan has also made forays into national politics. He participated in Teens for Tukwila, a youth program operated by Tukwila Parks and Recreation. The group went to Washington, D.C., on a couple of occasions to discuss, among other things, opioid addiction and homelessness.
During his senior year in high school Papyan was elected student body president. In 2017, a 19-year old Papyan ran for Tukwila City Council. “I didn’t use a single dollar,” he said. “I went door to door and printed off brochures on my computer.” Papyan lost the election but the experience gave him an opportunity to talk about affordable housing, a subject of great importance in his own life.
Papyan came to UW Tacoma in the fall of 2015. He hadn’t been on campus long when he found himself without a home. The house he shared with his brother and grandparents burned down. The family escaped unharmed but struggled to find a new place to live. “We couldn’t afford anything,” said Papyan. “We ended up staying with friends and bouncing from house to house for about six months.”
The experience reinforced Papyan’s growing desire to help others. During his sophomore year at UW Tacoma he oversaw the ASUWT elections. He was hired to serve as director of legislative affairs after the elected representative resigned.
One of Papyan’s first tasks was helping create a legislative agenda. He spoke with ASUWT, held town halls and conducted surveys to find out the issues important to students. “Most of the responses concerned city-level issues like parking, street lights and crosswalks,” said Papyan. This feedback led Papyan to propose an ASUWT position that would lobby Tacoma city leaders. The idea passed an early vote and is pending final approval.
In January, Papyan led a contingent of UW Tacoma students to Olympia as part of the annual “Huskies on the Hill” lobby day. Students from all three UW campuses participate in the event. Together, the group advocated for increased funding to the State Need Grant. The program provides need-based financial aid to income-eligible students. The legislature agreed to add $18.5 million by 2019 with a plan to add more funds in the coming years. “We had a larger than average turnout this year and that was exciting to see,” said Papyan.
Papyan isn’t sure if elected office is in his future. He has one year left to go before completing his degree in politics, philosophy and economics. “I really want to stay involved and maybe focus on getting more young people to participate in the process,” he said. For Papyan, politics is personal. He’s seen firsthand what can happen when individuals and groups work together to for a common cause. “There are people here on campus who we haven’t heard from,” he said. “We want to know their concerns so we can work to create change.”
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or firstname.lastname@example.org