Despite the frigid temperatures, a crowd of smartly dressed students huddled together amid the gently falling snow outside the Sadler Center at 5:45 a.m. Jan. 24, waiting to board the bus that would carry them to Richmond. One ride along an increasingly white I-64 later, the team of budding lobbyists dispersed throughout the General Assembly Building to sit down with state legislators and their aides, extolling the virtues of William & Mary and talking about the legislative issues affecting the university this session.
The effort was part of the annual Road to Richmond event designed to bring students to the Commonwealth’s capital to meet with state legislators and advocate for the university. This year’s Road to Richmond, organized by W&M's Government Relations office, the president’s office and the Student Assembly, saw more than 20 students participate alongside several faculty, alumni and administrators.
“Before I graduate, I want to give back to the school in as many ways as I can, and I thought this would be a very tangible way to give back to the College,” said Madelyn Smith ’13. “It’s really important to advocate for your school.”
‘To robustly sing William & Mary’s song’
In preparation for the trip, the organizers held a planning meeting with the event’s organizers, where Student Assembly President Curt Mills ’13 gave the attendees an overview of the event, and Michael Fox, President Taylor Reveley’s chief of staff, described the history and objectives of the Road to Richmond event.
Reveley then reviewed W&M’s legislative priorities, suggesting possible conversation topics, including the importance of out-of-state students.
“We would be a very different school—as well as bankrupt—if we didn’t have out-of-state students,” he said. “The mix of our student body, which includes people from all across the United States and increasingly from around the world, greatly enriches our community.”
He also encouraged students to ask legislators to support need-based financial aid, “so that William & Mary remains affordable for families who don’t have the means to pay tuition.”
The most important part, he added, was that students should “just be your usual completely glued-together and charming selves.”
“Basically convey you really like William & Mary,” he said.
On the day of the event, the Road to Richmond team made its way to the Library of Virginia for a breakfast during which the delegation was able to meet some of the state’s legislators.
Reveley addressed the attendees as they dined, urging the students to have fun and remarking on the quality of W&M’s undergraduate program, which has, for the eighth year in a row, received a record number of applications.
The president also discussed the history of the Road to Richmond and its value to the College.
“For 320 years, W&M has grown a lot of history and a lot of traditions,” he said. “One of them is the Road to Richmond that you are on this year. It’s been going on for 20 years, old enough to be a solidly established tradition, and one of real value to the College because it gets a group of our students up here to see some legislators, and to robustly sing William & Mary’s song and to get some sense of the how the legislative process works.”
‘A legacy of responsibility’
Leaving the Library of Virginia, the student-lobbyists crossed the road to the General Assembly Building and, once inside, fought for elevator space as they made their way to a sixth-floor conference room.
Once inside, Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-3rd) spoke with the students about the importance of their advocacy for the university. Norment, a law and government instructor at W&M who also serves as an advisor, is an alumnus of the William & Mary Law School.
“You all are the best advocates because you are the ones that are consuming the educational product that we are delivering, and consequently the importance of you being here is that the 140 legislators see you, and they know that’s where the investment of the state is going. Don’t be bashful,” Norment J.D. ’73 told the students.
He insisted that their labor, while perhaps not having an immediately apparent effect, was nonetheless vital to the College.
“Advocacy has to be continuous. There cannot be a recess. There cannot be any break in it. There has to be that constant, deliberate awareness in front of the legislators. You all individually may not see the benefit of what you’re doing before you graduate, but some of that is what we refer to as legacy or responsibility,” he said.
Norment pressed upon the students the value of their “extraordinary education” and the responsibility that education entails.
“You want to maintain, if you will, the value of that diploma. You have a legacy of responsibility and I encourage you to take that very seriously,” he said.
In the field
After Norment concluded his remarks, the group divided into teams of two or three, dispersing throughout the General Assembly Building to perform the day’s work of speaking with legislators and their staffs.
Stacey LaRiviere ’14, Victor Ganier ’14 and Keenan Kelley ’14 went to work immediately, visiting the office of Senate President Pro Tempore Walter Stosch (R-12th). While the senator was not in, the team spoke with a legislative aide about some of W&M’s priorities and left the senator a bag of green and gold M&M candies as a token of their appreciation.
LaRiviere is currently an intern for Norment’s office, a position that offers her a unique perspective on the lobbying efforts. A veteran of Road to Richmond, having helped organize last year’s event, La Riviere says that her participation “ignited my passion for government affairs in general and made me see that advocacy is so important at every level.”
“Students have a unique perspective. They see what William & Mary needs at a different level than the Board of Visitors or President Reveley. They come into direct contact with Tyler and the ISC [Integrated Science Center] and know what we need,” she said.
Kelley and Ganier also met with Senators Frank Ruff (R-15th) and Harry Blevins (R-14th). Kelley, an out-of-state student from Connecticut, and Ganier, an international student from France, focused on the value of geographical diversity to the university in their conversations with the legislators.
Ganier, who studied law in France, was eager to see the process of lobbying in action.
“Senator Ruff was very interested in what we were saying; he was open to our suggestions. I was afraid to meet people who just wanted to get rid of us, but he really interacted with us,” he said.
After speaking with legislators, some students took advantage of an opportunity to sit in on a meeting of the Senate Education and Health Committee, witnessing the early stages of the legislative process in action.
“We listened to the educational committee, which talked about various issues involving school boards, but one issue that I was concerned about was whether or not Teach for America would get a license to work in Virginia. It was interesting to listen to a lot of bills concerning K-12 pass into floor consideration,” said Will Mann ’13, who spoke with Senator Charles Colgan (D-29th) earlier in the day.
The road to Williamsburg
At around 11:40 a.m., the students reunited in the General Assembly Building’s lobby, sharing stories about the people they had met and the conversations they had had. Once the group had gathered, they made their way back through the snowy streets to board the bus that would carry them back once more to Williamsburg where many had classes awaiting their return.
The prospect of a 20-minute scramble for lunch before dashing to class did little to hamper Mann’s enthusiasm for the morning’s efforts.
“I really get a kick out of it. It’s thrilling. I’ve benefitted from the small size of William & Mary and I want to make sure that the legislators know just how wonderful it is,” said Mann, a three-year Road to Richmond veteran.
“Most of the delegates you talk to are super-enthusiastic about the College. They want to hear about your experiences, how much you’re learning and how much you’re growing. Most people you talk to really want to know that the decisions they’re helping to make and the money they’re helping to pass is really beneficial and they couldn’t be happier to talk to students,” he said.