With green and gold M&Ms in their pockets, a bouquet of pencil flags in their hands and a love for William & Mary in their hearts, Kaveh Sadeghian ‘12, Stacey LaRiviere ‘14 and Laura Faulkner ’12 set out to explore Virginia’s General Assembly Building in Richmond Wednesday morning. Guided by a smart phone app to the appropriate offices, the trio sat down with several state legislators and their assistants, telling them about the virtues of William & Mary and the issues before the assembly that could affect it.
The trio’s efforts were part of the College’s annual Road to Richmond event, which brings students to the capital of the Commonwealth each year to meet with state legislators and advocate for the College. The trip is organized by the College’s Government Relations Office and the Student Assembly. This year, approximately 40 students participated in the event, along with a few alumni, faculty members and administrators.
“We pride ourselves so much on our College, and we pride ourselves so much on what the College stands for, and this is one of those very finite and very tangible ways to help that doesn’t necessarily come directly out of pockets,” said Sadeghian, who serves as the president of the Student Assembly. “There isn’t much that college students can do, but this is one of the most important things that we can do right now.”
Being their ‘charming, winsome selves’
To prepare students for the trip, the Road to Richmond organizers hosted a meeting with President Taylor Reveley to discuss the College’s legislative agenda. They also organized a lobbying training session with a William & Mary alumna and former Dominion Power lobbyist.
“William & Mary hasn’t had a lobbying training session since 2007, so I thought it was a good way to have everyone brush up on their lobbying experience as well as prepare to meet with legislators,” said LaRiviere, who serves as the Student Assembly’s Undersecretary for Public Affairs.
When the day finally arrived, the students gathered at the Sadler Center around 6 a.m. to travel by bus to Richmond. The first event on the agenda was a breakfast at the Library of Virginia during which the William & Mary delegation was able to meet some of the state’s legislators. Reveley addressed the group as they dined, remarking on the quality of the College’s undergraduate program, which has once again – for the seventh year in a row – received a record number of applications.
The College president then offered some advice to the students for talking with the legislators, suggesting possible conversation topics including the importance of need-based financial aid and the benefits of out-of-state students. The College wants to make sure it maintains its undergraduate ratio of 65 percent in-state students and 35-percent out-of-state students.
“Everybody knows we love in-state students, but out-of-state students are also crucial to our community – to its life, to its vigor, and to paying the bills,” he said. “So if you have a chance, dispel any notion that William & Mary could possibly be the kind of school it is without out-of-state students.”
Reveley also told the students to thank the representatives for the state’s support, which was not cut during last year’s legislative session for the first time since 2008. But the most important thing, he added, was for the students to just be their “usual charming, winsome selves.”
“It’s important to let your enthusiasm for your alma mater come through,” Reveley said. “If you leave only one message behind, it ought to be that you are getting a superb education both in class and out at William & Mary, and you love it.”
Building lifelong connections
Following the breakfast, the students walked to the General Assembly Building where they met with Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-3rd). Norment, who teaches law and government at the College and also serves as an advisor, is an alumnus of the William & Mary Law School.
“The educational opportunity that I was afforded at William & Mary really was the key to any modest successes that I have been able to enjoy in life,” Norment J.D. ’73 told the students.
Norment said that William & Mary is an “extraordinary institution of higher education” but it is also a business.
“And like any businesses, you’ve got to have a budget, and that budget’s got to be balanced,” he said. “Higher education has taken a hit over a number of years. The state’s responsibility to fund public higher education remains; it’s just a question of what level do we fund.”
Norment told the students that they are consumers of “the most extraordinary educational opportunity that we can afford you.”
“What your responsibility is as being the beneficiary of that extraordinary education does not mean that you can just walk away and forget it,” Norment said. “This is just the beginning of a stewardship responsibility that hopefully will be instilled in your hearts and your minds for many, many years.”
Getting a few points across
Following the meeting with Norment, the students broke off into small teams of two or three and were assigned legislators to visit.
Freshman Jimmy Zhang had the chance to meet with several legislative aides as well as Senators Creigh Deeds (D-25th) and John Miller (D-1st), whose campaign Zhang interned for.
“We definitely hope to have gotten a few points across,” he said. “There’s a house bill – HB 1124 – that has certain provisions that directly and specifically impact the College … We hope that we made enough of an impression to get this bill through, to sustain the level of out-of-state students and not cut that anymore, to make sure they don’t cut anymore of our funding, and to basically just get the good overall impression of the College across and how much we love it.”
Sadeghian, LaRiviere and Faulkner met with Delegate Tim Hugo (R-40th) as well as the legislative assistants for Delegates Kirk Cox (R-66th) and Chris Jones (R-76th), whose daughter attends William & Mary. Like Zhang, the trio was also able to meet with Miller, whose district includes Williamsburg.
“In that meeting, we were able to discuss (the College’s) legislative agenda and accurately explain the need for continued fiscal support with respect to out-of-state students and financial aid,” said LaRiviere. “This bill will impact William & Mary for the long haul because it affects building and learning environments.”
All about relationships
Faulkner, who serves as an intern in the Government Relations Office, said that Road to Richmond is a good learning opportunity for students.
“It’s a good experience as far as seeing what goes on in the background with the laws that get made that impact the school, and it’s nice to see how the school tries to help you because you don’t ever see what’s going on and what issues the school has to deal with on a daily basis,” she said. “You just expect everything to happen. So it’s kind of cool to see all of the work that goes into it and trying to give back a little bit.”
The trip also gives students a chance to “find their own voice,” said LaRiviere.
“William & Mary students are two-pronged constituents – in their home communities, and as part of the campus community,” she said. “It was clear that William & Mary students learned one of the most important components of advocacy: building relationships.”
That component is something that Antonio Elias ’09, now a legislative assistant for Delegate Betsy Carr (D-69th), said that he learned when he participated in Road to Richmond as a student at William & Mary.
“During the session it’s all about relationships, and I don’t necessarily mean already knowing the person when they walk in the door, but knowing how to treat somebody when they walk in the door,” he said. “Having been the person walking in the door with the Road to Richmond program, I think that gave me a very valuable experience.”
Elias said that the Road to Richmond opportunity appealed to him as a student because it offered the chance to advocate for something that was important to him.
“This was just an opportunity I wanted to jump on to let people know what a fantastic experience the school was and how much we deserve the respect and support of the leaders here in Richmond,” he said.
Sadeghian, too, said that he wanted to participate in Road to Richmond so he could “bring the stories of campus to Richmond.”
“How can we expect the senators to be so passionate about William & Mary if they haven’t seen our passion for William & Mary? This is one of those really good opportunities to be able to translate that over because you can’t communicate it through memos or e-mails or words,” he said. “You need to see the expressions and the enthusiasm and the passion of the students, and I have no doubts that that’s going to get translated – it does every year.”
The Road to Williamsburg
Around 11:30 a.m., the students returned from all corners of the General Assembly Building and gathered in a conference room, sharing stories about the people they had met and the conversations they had engaged in. After getting together for a group picture, the students – now all experienced lobbyists – made their way to the bus and prepared for the ride back to campus and, for many, the classes that still lay ahead.
But the prospect of two classes that afternoon didn’t seem to damper Zhang’s enthusiasm about the morning he had just had.
Zhang, who is interested in studying government and economics at the College, said that his first Road to Richmond experience was great and that he plans to participate in it every year.
“I think I got a lot out of this, and I think it’s just a very positive experience to just involve yourself in politics and play a part in contributing to the community,” he said.
And though the experience required a 4:45 a.m. wake-up, “it was well worth it,” Zhang said.