A crowd of William & Mary students shared a sigh of relief Jan. 22 as they moved from the frigid outdoor conditions at the Sadler Terrace onto a heated charter bus. Each student claimed a seat, introduced themselves and waited in anticipation for the day’s event: the 23rd annual Road to Richmond.
Every January, students from different majors, class years and backgrounds are linked by a common passion for their school and for advocacy. The Road to Richmond, sponsored by the W&M President’s Office and the Office of Government Relations, allows students to employ their voice and represent the university at the Virginia General Assembly.
Upon arrival to the state’s capitol, students received a warm greeting from enthusiastic alumni, legislators including local representatives Sen. Monty Mason ’89 (D-1st) and Del. Mike Mullin (D-93rd) and W&M President Katherine A. Rowe who was participating in the event for the first time.
Rowe expressed her gratitude for the students’ presence and empowered students with advice for their coming meet-and-greets.
“Think of yourself as the host,” she said. “That room is William & Mary. You are William & Mary.”
She encouraged students to be curious with their ‘invitees,’ adding, “There’s nothing so powerful as asking someone a question.”
She completed her remarks with an emphasis on the significance of student voices.
“Coming from the private sector of higher education, it’s amazing to be at a place that sees higher education as educating our future citizens in the Commonwealth and beyond,” she said. “You will be defining what work looks like. That’s powerful.”
Putting curiosity to work
With that power in mind, students began their engagement with government officials. Armed with names of legislators and William & Mary pride, students formed small groups to explore the offices of the General Assembly and advocate for their institution.
Randall Riffle ’21, a participant majoring in government, was among one group roaming the Pocahontas Building halls and sitting down with eager delegates. This excursion was his favorite part of the day, Riffle said.
“Going around the Pocahontas Building, I saw happy faces – people just smiling and willing to talk to you,” said Riffle.
One of the people Riffle met with was the Angela Chellew, legislative aide of Del. James A. Leftwich Jr. (R-78th). Leftwich is Riffle’s representative.
Students primarily visited their own representatives or W&M alumni, many of which had adorned their office doors with green and gold.
Miles Gordon, legislative assistant for Del. Jeffrey Bourne (D-71st), applauded William & Mary students’ advocacy efforts and greeted the group with a passionate, “Go Tribe!”
With Del. Vivian Watts (D-39th), William & Mary students spoke of the importance of higher education and the formative influence of a liberal arts curriculum. Conversations between students and representatives featured the ongoing theme of the diversity of paths to public service.
This dialogue was particularly meaningful to Rhea Sharma ’19, a student majoring in neuroscience and biochemistry on the pre-medicine track. Reassured by the day’s conversations about the many forms of and paths to government work, Sharma developed a newfound commitment to public engagement.
“As a STEM major coming to an event with so many people in government, I didn’t know how I would fit into that,” she said. “I gained confidence that I really did have a great perspective to show. I learned that anybody can get involved in a career like this. It’s inspiring.”
Outside of the General Assembly offices, students also received the opportunity to talk with young William & Mary alumni involved in government.
Speakers gave accounts of their journey from W&M to careers in public service. Hannah Cannon ’17 and Thomas Cross ’12, both legislative assistants in the Virginia General Assembly, emphasized that there is no uniform paths to the field of politics. Cannon described growing up in a family with little political involvement, and Cross disclosed that his first job upon graduation was in a brewery.
Del. Jay Jones ’10 (D-89th), the youngest member of the Virginia House of Delegates, also connected with William & Mary students over a commitment to serve communities. He encouraged students to stay active and engaged.
“I know you guys are all go-getters,” he said. “When I was at William & Mary, I did Honor Council, was an OAD (Orientation Area Director), tour guide — all that stuff. In your adult life, there isn’t as much time. Be thoughtful about what’s important to you and what will draw your talents in to be most effective.”
The final event for the student lobbyists was an evening reception in the Library of Virginia that gathered the speakers, legislators, alumni and students who support the university’s efforts. First Lady of Virginia Pamela Northam was also attendance.
Rowe addressed the crowd.
“I’d like to recognize members of the General Assembly and the executive branch, so many of whom are William & Mary alumni – you know that is our secret 30-year plan,” she joked. “We’re going to populate the entirety of the General Assembly and the entirety of the executive branch with William & Mary alumni.”
As the laughter died down, Rowe emphasized the importance of strong partnerships between the Commonwealth and William & Mary, using the Tour de France as an analogy.
“In the Tour de France, there are different types of competition stages,” she said. “We’re in the long flats right now, where every team is working with their leadership, developing strategies for the long game. We are entering this marathon with the momentum of sustained collaboration between the Commonwealth and the legislature, higher education and the business community.”
Rowe completed her remarks with a reference to the unique and exceptional population of William & Mary students she’s come to know. She complimented the students’ intelligence, outward attention, sense of duty and commitment to the breadth of knowledge distinctive to a liberal arts education. She implored the audience to engage with the students and learn about the transformative, budding talent they represent.
“We’re so glad that they’re ours,” she said.
As she stepped away from the podium, she turned to the group of students and whispered, “Now, it’s time to be hosts!”
After a period of dense conversation and engagement, students had to be peeled away to the catch the bus back home. For the hour-long trip back, some students whipped out homework; others reflected on what was deemed a successful day.
Spencer Gilbert ’20, government and economics major and student intern in the Government Relations Office, said he was pleased with the event he helped organize.
“The state does a lot of important things for the school, and I think it’s great that students have an opportunity to learn about that and engage in it,” he said. “If this opportunity wasn’t available, I’m not sure students would get that anywhere else.”
For Sharma, the event allowed her to envision future involvement in public service.“Now, I can see myself getting involved at school and at home,” she said. “I’m hoping to be able to anchor myself to the social justice issues I care about, as well as go back and try to influence my community and my family to care about those issues.”