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Student lobbyists shine in 20th annual Road to Richmond

  • Road to Richmond
    Road to Richmond  Students talk with Del. Richard C. “Rip” Sullivan (D-48th) during William & Mary’s 20th annual Road to Richmond.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Road to Richmond
    Road to Richmond  The 2016 Road to Richmond participants pose for a photo on the Executive Mansion steps with Gov. Terry McAuliffe.   Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Road to Richmond
    Road to Richmond  Students walk from the General Assembly Building to the State Capitol.   Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Road to Richmond
    Road to Richmond  Delegate Monty Mason ’89 (D-93rd) describes his role in the General Assembly to the gathered students.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Road to Richmond
    Road to Richmond  Students gather in front of the State Capitol Building for a final briefing before beginning their lobbying experience.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Road to Richmond
    Road to Richmond  During a break from meeting with legislators, Road to Richmond attendees admire the George Washington statute in the State Capitol Rotunda.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Road to Richmond
    Road to Richmond  Fran Bradford, associate vice president for government relations, leads a briefing with student attendees before beginning the day of lobbying.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Road to Richmond
    Road to Richmond  Merci Best ’17 enjoys a moment of conversation with other attendees during the evening reception at the Library of Virginia.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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A crowd of well-dressed students gathered amid the rapidly melting snow on the Sadler Center Terrace early Monday afternoon to board the bus that would take them to the state capital. Equipped with padfolios, smiling faces and crucial bags of green and gold M&Ms, the team of budding lobbyists took to Virginia’s General Assembly Building to extoll William & Mary’s virtues and talk about the issues affecting the university with state legislators and their aides.

Their efforts were part of William & Mary’s Road to Richmond, an annual event sponsored by the Office of Government Relations and the Student Assembly that connects students with their representatives to advocate for the university. Now in its 20th year, nearly 60 students joined faculty, alumni and administrators in the capital for a day brimming with quality conversations and no small amount of Tribe pride.

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“It’s a chance for students to be advocates for the College and to give back,” said Katherine Ambrose ’17, an intern in the Office of Government Relations who took a primary role in organizing the event. “I think it’s important that students can take what they’re passionate about on campus and be able to talk to elected officials and legislators who can really make political change here.”

An impressively large group

To prepare the students for their conversations with lawmakers, the event’s organizers hosted an informational meeting with President Taylor Reveley on Sunday night in order to review William & Mary’s legislative goals for the 2016 session.

“This is an unusually large group,” said Reveley in opening the Sunday night meeting. “That is extraordinary and will be very impressive in the [General Assembly] Building.”

Although previous Roads to Richmond have had increasing student participation, rising from around 20 to upwards of 40 students over the past three years, 2016 saw the best attendance yet.

“The governor has a lot of good things for higher education, including William & Mary, in his budget,” Reveley explained. “The main thing to focus on is our need for planning money for the first phase of an arts complex we will build by Phi Beta Kappa Hall, and the first building in that complex will be for music.”

Reveley noted that the Center for Recurrent Flooding and Resiliency, a partnership between Old Dominion University and William & Mary’s Virginia Coastal Policy Center, as well as continued support for a vibrant out-of-state student population, are also among the university’s priorities this year.

Ultimately though, Reveley noted, Road to Richmond is about students letting the legislators know how much they care about William & Mary.

“Stay in character: Be smart, nice, charming,” Reveley said. “That will matter a lot more than what you actually say. Just be yourselves. In short — be William & Mary students.”

Getting a first-hand perspective

The student lobbyists dove right in upon arrival in Richmond, streaming into the General Assembly Building just as the House and Senate dismissed for the day.

Kathleen Bryant ’18 was part of a team that covered a lot of ground — she spoke with Delegates Mark H. Levine (D-45th) and Israel D. O’Quinn (R-5th), as well as the legislative assistant for Senator William R. DeSteph, Jr. (R-8th).

“Everyone we talked to has been really receptive and really positive,” Bryant said. “It has been a valuable experience to get a first-hand perspective on how our government works and to talk and interact with the people who are actually making our laws.”

Elsewhere in the General Assembly Building, Jakob Stalnaker ’16 and Student Assembly President Yohance Whitaker ’16 had a chance to sit down with Senator John Miller (D-1st), whose district includes William & Mary.

“Senator Miller was generally really receptive and very helpful in our discussions,” reported Stalnaker, a multi-year Road to Richmond veteran. “It was good to see our state senator for William & Mary be that receptive to his constituents.”

“It’s crucial for William & Mary students to show up to the General Assembly, to make it known that we’re engaged with the issues, to make it known that we’re paying attention and that we’re going to hold our elected official accountable,” Whitaker added.

As the time for conversations with lawmakers drew to a close, the team of student lobbyists made its way to the front steps of Virginia’s Executive Mansion, the residence of Governor Terry McAuliffe who met them there for a group photo.

After the picture was taken, the William & Mary team received an unexpected but delightful treat: a personal tour of the Executive Mansion led by the governor himself. During the unscheduled visit, McAuliffe explained some of the residence’s paintings to students and told several stories, including how the governor traditionally sits at the southernmost seat when hosting formal dinners.

After departing the Executive Mansion, the attendees met with Delegate Monty Mason ’89 (D-93rd), an alumnus representing William & Mary’s House district and an avid Tribe basketball fan. He discussed his legislative role and encouraged the students to stay in touch with their elected representatives throughout their lives.

“There is some issue that we will touch on this year that you care about,” Mason said. “Wherever you end up, I just urge you to be involved. We need the next, younger generation in the game. We need your inputs; we need your ideas.”

Forging strong connections

As the sun began to set over Thomas Jefferson’s Capitol Building, the delegation made its way to the Library of Virginia for an evening reception with legislators, alumni, administrators and other friends of William & Mary.

The attendees mingled and shared stories of the day’s successes until Reveley stepped to the lectern to deliver his annual message recounting the university’s year.

Reveley opened by thanking the General Assembly for its support of the Lewis B. Puller, Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic at William & Mary Law School, a nationally renowned program. He went on to observe that since William & Mary began concentrating on improving STEM facilities in the early 2000s, including most recently the construction of the third phase of the Integrated Science Center, the number of STEM majors at the university has increased by 55 percent.

But, Reveley noted, STEM alone does not a liberal arts college make.

“Physicists like music. Mathematicians like music. Their brains are wired in the same way. So, we build a music building, and it will make our STEM people happy,” he said.

Following Reveley’s remarks, Whitaker took a moment to thank the attendees for their continued support of William & Mary.

As the reception drew to a close, the student lobbyists boarded the bus back to Williamsburg tired but proud of a day well spent.

“It’s great to connect to our legislators here in Richmond and also to advocate for issues both on behalf of the College and that we care about as individuals,” said Jimmy Zhang ’16 as his third and final Road to Richmond came to a close.

“Times change, and the issues change with the time. That’s why it’s so important to forge these strong connections between the College and our government here in Virginia,” he added.