Virginia’s General Assembly Building was awash with green and gold Tuesday afternoon as students from all walks of life sat down with state legislators and their aides. With smiles on their faces and bags of green and gold M&Ms in their hands, these budding lobbyists extolled the university’s virtues and discussed the issues affecting William & Mary before the legislature this session.
The afternoon of lobbying—a departure from previous years’ early morning efforts—was part of William & Mary’s Road to Richmond, an annual event organized by the Office of Government Relations and the Student Assembly that brings students to Virginia’s capital to advocate for the university. The shift to an afternoon time proved to be a successful experiment as nearly 40 undergraduate and graduate students joined faculty, administrators and alumni for a packed day of advocacy and Tribe pride.
“We’re the ones who stand to either benefit or suffer from whatever legislation is passed regarding higher education,” said Harrison Tumke ’18, a first-time Road to Richmond attendee. “I think us actually being here to discuss these legislative initiatives really makes it easier for us to understand the legislative process and its potential impact on William & Mary.”
Preparing for an experiment
To equip the student-lobbyists for successful interactions, the event’s organizers hosted an informational meeting Sunday night to review the university’s legislative goals with President Taylor Reveley.
“We are essentially playing defense this year,” Reveley informed the students, noting that William & Mary’s top legislative priority this session is protecting the university’s current level of state funding.
Reveley added, however, that the most important part of the students’ trip was to simply engage legislators and let them know the students care about their university.
“The main thing that you should do—particularly since you don’t have to get up in the middle of the night, put on your uniform in the dark and cold, and stagger to the bus—is to have a good time. Have fun and enjoy the process,” Reveley said.
Reveley was not alone in his optimism for the new time.
“Moving Road to Richmond to the afternoon is an experiment,” noted Lexi Cole ’16, the government relations intern responsible for organizing this year’s Road to Richmond. “Legislators are usually in committee hearings all morning; this time, we set a schedule so students are there when the legislators should be in their office.”
‘Jump on it with both feet’
Upon arriving in Richmond, the eager students streamed off the bus and ascended the steps of the Capitol for a quick photo with Governor Terry McAuliffe. Sporting a green and gold necktie, McAuliffe offered words of encouragement to the delegation, most of whom were first-time attendees, and emphasized the importance of higher education in Virginia.
This interaction heightened the excitement in the already enthusiastic crowd. Ready to begin meeting with the lawmakers, the students continued up Capitol Square toward the General Assembly Building.
“I’m amazed by the fact that we’re having the opportunity to meet with our legislators,” said Tumke as he entered the legislative office building. “I think that anytime you have the chance to meet with your lawmakers—local, state or national—you should jump on it with both feet.”
Once inside, the group traveled to a sixth floor Senate conference room where they met with Del. Monty Mason ’89 (D-93rd). Mason, an active alumnus who represents the university’s district, talked about his role in the legislature as well as the importance of students meeting with their representatives.
“Come up and give us your perspective. Tell us what you want us to know. Just make sure you weigh in on matters of importance,” Mason told the students. “Interact with your legislators wherever you live—what you have to say means something and makes a difference.”
‘Boots on the ground’
As Mason departed, the students paired off and, M&Ms in hand, set out for the main event: meeting with the Commonwealth’s lawmakers.
Doohyun Nam ’16 was part of the team that immediately set off to visit with Del. Roslyn Tyler (D-75th). Although Tyler was in a subcommittee meeting, Nam discussed the university’s legislative priorities with the delegate’s legislative aide, including explaining the role of the Puller Veterans’ Benefits Clinic and the need for an integrated wellness center.
Elsewhere in the General Assembly Building, Sam Holliday ’17 and Tumke sat down with Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-31st).
“Delegate Lingamfelter was the first member we had a chance to talk to, and I think it went very well. He was interested in what we had to say, and showed particular interest in the Puller Clinic,” said Holliday, who also noted Lingamfelter was especially appreciative that students took the time to speak with him.
“Our position as ‘boots on the ground’ students involved in the College certainly carries weight in this lobbying interaction, as opposed to abstract, third parties. This conversation was clearly an example of that,” Holliday added.
A substantial part of the delegation, including Cole and Sebastian Munevar ’15, later found themselves in Mason’s office. Mason listened intently to the students’ points and also offered probing questions about William & Mary’s goals.
“Delegate Mason was very receptive and the interaction was great,” said Munevar, a veteran who discussed the issue of veterans in higher education at length with the delegate. “It’s important to have those conversations with the representatives, even if we don’t agree about everything.”
‘A graceful moment’
As the workday wound down, the now-experienced student-lobbyists joined the streams of exiting legislative staffers as they left the General Assembly Building for the Library of Virginia, where perhaps the most successful aspect of the afternoon Road to Richmond experiment awaited: an evening reception with legislators and university administrators.
Students, alumni, lawmakers and administrators mingled, trading stories and making connections, until Reveley ascended the podium for his annual review of the university’s successes.
Reveley noted that for the 11th year in a row, William & Mary had received a record number of applications from “celestially magnificent” candidates, and that it remains the leading public university for students studying abroad. But the real achievement, he joked, had occurred that very day.
“This reception used to start at 7:30 in the morning, in the winter,” Reveley said. “And now, it’s a graceful moment in the afternoon—I call that evolutionary progress.”
After the reception drew to a close, the team of student lobbyists left Richmond satisfied with a job well done.
“Being in the thick of it and seeing the way this process works is so important, especially because of the direct impact it has on the entire William & Mary community,” said Scott Caravello ’15, who serves as secretary of public affairs in the Student Assembly. “Having legislators have real, direct interaction with students really reminds them about why we need to keep investing in higher education in Virginia.”
By the time students departed for home after returning to Williamsburg, a consensus had emerged: the afternoon experiment was a resounding success, and many of this year’s first-timers will be returning veterans at next year’s Road to Richmond.