Many colleges and universities in Virginia participate in events called “Lobby Days.” Typically, folks who lobby for schools at the General Assembly organize student visits to Richmond, paying for the trip and arranging meetings with lawmakers. Not so at the University of Virginia. Following the strong spirit of self-governance, UVA’s Student Council took full control of the reins.
That effort this year was led by Elizabeth Parker, chair of the legislative affairs committee. Parker, a fourth-year student double-majoring in government and Spanish linguistics, said planning the Valentine’s Day visit was quite an effort.
“UVA Government Relations advised me the best day for the trip was the day after ‘crossover,’ which is the deadline for legislation to pass through its original chamber — whether that’s the House of Delegates or the Senate,” she said.
“I emailed all of the Wahoo lawmakers serving in the General Assembly to set up meeting times,” she added. Not only that, she arranged meetings with Gov. Ralph Northam and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.
Parker also asked Del. David Toscano, the Democratic Minority Leader and a UVA Law grad who represents Charlottesville in the House of Delegates, to introduce Student Council on the House floor during session. “He graciously agreed to do so,” she said happily.
Student Council President Sarah Kenny said the goal of the trip was to establish and bolster relationships with the UVA alumni who are serving as delegates and senators in Virginia government.
“We ended up seeing about 17 or so delegates and senators,” including members of both parties, said the fourth-year student, who is majoring in political philosophy, policy and law & government, and minoring in women and gender studies. “They stemmed from Curry graduates to law graduates and nursing, a really wide range.”
Because the group visited during the crossover period, they were not advocating for any particular piece of legislation. Instead, the conversation was mostly focused on the importance of higher education in Virginia.
“We were hearing great support for higher education, as the University is a great generator of jobs in the Commonwealth,” Kenny said. “We heard lots of fond memories of their experiences here. Lots of personal growth, the wonderful friendships they had formed on Grounds. Really, the sense of pride that we heard in their voices about their alma mater was palpable and really exciting.”
There are 16 UVA alumni serving in the General Assembly. Parker got to meet with Jay Jones, who graduated from the School of Law in 2015 and, at the age of 28, is the youngest member of the House of Delegates, the lower house in the General Assembly. She said he talked about his love for UVA and Charlottesville in general.
The UVA team met with Northam for about 15 minutes on the steps of the capitol. Kenny said she was grateful that he took time out of his busy schedule to talk with the student leaders. She said he expressed his appreciation for their work as student leaders and getting others to become involved in civic action.
“We feel that civic engagement is a big part of what an undergraduate or graduate experience at the University of Virginia should include and that speaking with the people who represent us about the importance of higher education is really critical,” she said.
“We think it was a successful, positive day.”
The Student Council president came back to Grounds energized and ready to do more. As she and her team were in Richmond, a shooter opened fire at a high school in Florida, killing 17 people.
Now, Student Council is organizing around the March 14 National School Walkout, to protest inaction to gun violence in schools. The walkout will be at 10 a.m. and will last for 17 minutes, in honor of the 17 students who were murdered.
She is also working with 200 student council presidents at other schools around the country.
“I think this is an opportunity for us to organize on a mass scale and I think if given the opportunity, people would definitely step out of class in solidarity,” Kenny said.
Student Council is in the early stages of getting a UVA contingent to Washington D.C., where there will be a national demonstration.
Kenny said she recently heard from an alum who recalled the shooting at Kent State University in 1968 and drew a parallel to the shooting in Florida. “There is something about this shooting that I think is going to move the needle,” Kenny said. “We’ve had enough.”