With temperatures hovering around three degrees and a five-inch snow from the day before still blanketing campus, William & Mary was a desolate place at 5:45 a.m. on Jan. 30. Nonetheless, more than 30 sharply dressed students made the trudge from their homes and dorms to gather on a charter bus whose lights shone into the still darkness outside the Sadler Center.
The source of their dedication? A desire to share their love of William & Mary with Virginia’s lawmakers. And a short ride down I-64 later, these budding lobbyists were doing just that: roaming the halls of the General Assembly Building to meet with legislators and their aides, extolling William & Mary’s virtues and discussing issues affecting the university this legislative session.
This morning sojourn was William & Mary’s annual Road to Richmond, an event designed to bring students to the Commonwealth’s capital to meet with state legislators and advocate for the university. Organized by W&M's Government Relations office, the president’s office and the Student Assembly, this year’s Road to Richmond saw students participate alongside several faculty, alumni and administrators.
Having something to say
To prepare for the event, participants gathered on a snowy Tuesday night for the most widely attended planning meeting in Road to Richmond’s history. After a brief introduction, W&M President Taylor Reveley provided an overview of what to expect and suggested conversation topics to discuss with legislators.
“You will be walking the corridors of power in the holy city, seeing the feeding habits of the General Assembly, and you’ll talk to some of them,” Reveley told the students, the majority of which were first-time participants. “And I think what you will find is that they really enjoy talking to you because you are smart and charming, and you usually have something to say.”
Reveley encouraged the students to mention the value contributed by out-of-state students to the William & Mary community as they spoke with lawmakers. He also suggested priorities like raising base salaries for faculty, improving need-based financial aid and increasing support for the Puller Veteran’s Benefits Clinic at William & Mary Law School.
“Our Veteran’s Benefits Clinic can be a model for the country and is being a model for the country,” Reveley said.
According to Michael Fox, Reveley’s chief of staff, William & Mary pioneered the idea of sending students to the General Assembly as university representatives with the first Road to Richmond in 1995. Since then, Road to Richmond’s success has inspired other universities to begin similar programs.
“It’s important that legislators actually see the students that a college like this is producing,” Fox said. “I think it’s refreshing for them to see just how successful our students in particular have been, and it’s an opportunity to say thank you as well.”
‘A sense of responsibility and commitment’
After arriving at the capital, the student lobbyists first made their way to the Library of Virginia where they had an opportunity to mingle with legislators and administrators over a light breakfast.
Reveley addressed the attendees during the breakfast reception, encouraging the students to be their “wonderful, charming, intelligent selves” and reminding them of the key issues to discuss with legislators.
Reveley also delivered an abridged state of the university address, noting that William & Mary is first among public schools in study abroad with more than 45 percent of students participating and pointing out that undergraduate applications have risen for the 10th year in a row. In addition, he said that the current chief scientist at NASA and the heads of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the National Park Service were all among William & Mary’s alumni.
“We did not peak before the Civil War,” Reveley said.
After the breakfast, the delegation crossed a snow-covered Broad Street to the General Assembly Building and ascended to a sixth-floor Senate conference room. There, they were joined by Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment (R-3rd) and Del. Monty Mason (D-93rd) who spoke to the assembled students about their roles in the General Assembly and their relationship with William & Mary.
“You have had the privilege of getting an extraordinary education at one of the finest if not the finest public college in America,” Norment told the students before emphasizing the responsibility that comes with that education.
“You’re here because you feel a sense of responsibility and commitment, and I hope that will be a sense of stewardship that you will follow when you graduate,” he said.
After Student Assembly President Chase Koontz presented Mason with a framed sketch of the Wren Yard, the newly elected delegate representing William & Mary’s House district told students that William & Mary was an essential launchpad for his life.
“I would say that William & Mary has done everything for me as a person and as a professional,” he said. “The opportunity for me to represent William & Mary and work for you is one of the proudest things I have ever had in my life.”
‘Walking the corridors of power’
As Mason departed, members of the Road to Richmond delegation set out to meet with legislators throughout the building, gathering potted plants and green and gold M&Ms to deliver as tokens of their appreciation.
Danny Yates, J.D. ’15, and Scott Vierick ’15 visited Sen. Ryan McDougal’s (R-4th) legislative aide to discuss the issues facing William & Mary. They then met with Sen. Frank Ruff, (R-15th) a member of the Senate Finance Committee, with whom they talked at length.
“Senator Ruff seemed very interested both in the College as well as me personally and my colleagues,” Vierick said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to get to meet face-to-face with the folks who are deciding policy here in Richmond, and it was a great opportunity for me to represent my school and sort of serve as William & Mary’s face.”
Elsewhere in the building, Stephanee Brower ’17 visited with Sen. John Miller (D-1st) who represents much of the Virginia Peninsula.
“We talked about getting more funding and not putting a cap on how many out-of-state students we have so that we can have more funding for our arts infrastructure,” said Brower, a government major who intends to pursue a career in lobbying.
Emily Rheault ’17, who heard about Road to Richmond as a member of Young Democrats, enjoyed meeting with Del. David Bulova (D-37th) and plans to attend Road to Richmond throughout her William & Mary career.
“It taught me a lot of public speaking skills. I learned how to navigate the waters of the House of Delegates, and it was just a great experience to learn about what issues are facing the College and how we can try to help,” Rheault said, noting that she hoped to encourage other students to go on their first Road to Richmond.
“I would say that you can do Road to Richmond no matter what—you just need to have the confidence,” she said when asked what she would tell first-timers.
“Once you get here, you will have that confidence. Don’t be scared: just come.”