CNU Students Attend Virgina21’s

On Feb. 8, students from all over Virginia traveled to Richmond for the Student Advocacy Summit, hosted by Virginia21. While there, these students attended a skills workshop, networked with legislators (or their teams), and entered the offices of the General Assembly to lobby on specific issues relevant to all Virginia college students. CNU was one of these attending colleges, of which there were seven attendees, including myself.

Virgina21 is a nonprofit organization whose mission (as listed on their website) is to “empower college students and young Virginians to be engaged citizens and advocate for issues important to them and Virginia’s future”. This organization works year-round to provide opportunities for College Students with the chance to voice their needs and concerns directly to the members of Virginia’s government. For this organization, the Student Advocacy Summit serves as the tip of the iceberg for college students interested in how anyone can affect the Legislative process. Out of the seven attendees that went from Christopher Newport, none of us had any experience with VA21 and only two of us had ever lobbied before.

For this event, space was limited to eight attendees from each participating college, seven CNU students attended. Partly to blame was the short notice to the event, as after receiving the relevant email from Dr. Kirkpatrick in the afternoon, any interested students only had two days before registration was closed. Another consideration was that Virginia21 had taken a bit longer than other organizations to return to normal following the COVID-19 Pandemic, and this organization had next-to-no footprint on campus beforehand. Between these two reasons hardly anyone knew about this event, and when we finally did all of us had to make that decision to go or not, fast.

When asked about their expectations for the event, CNU freshman Nyla Robinson said, “I saw that there were limited spots and knew this was an opportunity I may not have again. I would get to witness senators and legislators in action during a critical time in our life, thinking that just meeting with them could make a difference in higher education”. Others, when asked, gave a similar response – and all to the point of: “What power do I have, and how can I use it to make a difference?”

While many people believe that lobbying is a strictly professional activity, or even a corrupting force in the legislature – it’s not that simple. While it’s true that there exist people who make an entire career out of being professional lobbyists, Lobbying isn’t as complicated or exclusive as one might think. All that is required to lobby is a person and their compelling interest, the only thing separating a regular citizen from lobbying is to be equipped with the tools and know-how to do it effectively. Attendees would learn through the workshop and the following day of lobbying that while anyone can do it, to have real impact is another matter entirely.

On arrival, attendees were given plenty of time to adjust to the new accommodations, setting themselves up in their hotel rooms and getting to know one another. After about an hour and a half of this, all attendees were set to meet at the first and only workshop to discuss lobbying generally, and items of specific importance to our group. Some of these had to do with procedure, the broader political picture, or the specific bills we were lobbying for. All of this information, all at once, was quite overwhelming but all very necessary for the work we would be doing for the whole rest of the conference.

After the workshop had concluded, the conference moved to a reception with members of the General Assembly. Students had the opportunity to intermingle with legislators, their aides, and each other. Many actually took this chance to clarify their understandings about the legislative process, the specific bills we were supposed to lobby for, and even took the chance to All of that was, to say the least, pretty exhausting, and with an early start the next morning most retired to their rooms shortly after the reception was over, though some pressed on to finish any relevant lobbying research well into the night.

After a brief breakfast, attendees traveled over to the Pocahontas Building, which houses the legislative offices for the entire General Assembly. There groups of students, each a ‘delegation’ from their respective universities were set to meet with the delegate and senator for their college’s district. Navigating the different floors, sitting down with Senators and Delegates, and commanding their attention towards specific issues – all in just a couple of hours. 

Virginia21 as an organization was well known, with many legislators either actively participating in it or having prior experience with them. When the CNU delegation arrived in those legislative offices we were patiently heard and well received, our delegation specifically assigned to meet with our local Delegate Michael Mullin and Senator Mamie Locke’s policy expert – also a local. Both times we approached for support on these specific bills, they agreed to support in their full capacity.

By the time ‘Lobby Day’ was over, it was the afternoon and the conference had formally concluded. Coming away from this experience, there was a prevailing sense of accomplishment and power that the attending students didn’t feel before. 

One of them, Ben Stoke, a freshman at CNU, said, “I loved the event, I would absolutely recommend it to others. It was eye opening to see how the lobbying process actually works and I could not thank Virginia21 enough for that opportunity.”