SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — While most University of Illinois students spend their spring break on vacation, some spent their time off working to change Illinois’ laws.

Nearly two dozen students from the Environmental Leadership Program visited the Capitol on Wednesday to speak with legislators about policies they have been studying. The inaugural cohort were one of the first visitor groups in the Capitol since the start of the pandemic, as the House reopened its gallery to visitors on Wednesday. 

“All the legislators were expressing how it’s kind of been a ghost town around here,” Alexis Smith, a senior studying Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences. “So being a part of that, reigniting the flame of environmental legislation was really exciting.”

Each student in the ELP focused on policy about a specific subject, from pollinators, to food insecurity, to coal ash. They then researched and developed policy proposals this semester before coming to Springfield and discussing their topics with legislators such as Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago) and Rep. Dan Ugaste (R-Geneva).

“I think it was very important to bring up our issues to people actually making your legislation,” senior John Hopkins, a student who studied a bill eliminating food waste, said. “And it’s going to be more important in our future as some residents in and around Champaign-Urbana and Illinois’ circle of food insecurity.”   

The student group circulated literature to lawmakers promoting plans to restrict pesticides that can be harmful to bees. They urged legislators to take immediate steps to protect pollinator colonies that can revitalize the state’s agriculture and habitat.

For many students like junior Neil Kasbekar, it was their first day setting foot in the Capitol. He hopes it’s just the first of many.

“I’ve always had an interest in working in public interest and working in policy and law,” Kasbekar said. “So finally being here to see a hands-on experience has been thrilling for me.”

Jen Walling, one of the state’s most well-known environmental lobbyists at the Illinois Environmental Council, helped show the next generation of climate leaders around the statehouse.

“Students are really powerful messengers,” Walling, a program advisor, said. “There’s a lot of young people that don’t get involved in politics. And having students talk to lawmakers is just a really powerful voice that they listen to because they’ve done the work.”

The ELP will similarly meet with Champaign and Urbana’s city councils this week to discuss their research.