R-MC Students Experience Politics in Action

Jan 25, 2018


group of studentsRandolph-Macon College students enrolled in Political Science Professor Richard Meagher's Virginia Politics in Action course are exploring politics and policymaking in unique ways.

For starters, the students are carrying out, in real time, an applied advocacy project. Working in teams, the students identified a bill currently before the Virginia General Assembly, and they are working during Meagher's January Term (J-term) course to develop and execute a step-by-step plan for helping to get the bills enacted or defeated.

"Students won't be graded on whether or not their bill passes," says Meagher. "But they'll gain valuable skills, knowledge and experience about the legislative process in Virginia, as well as the understanding that they can make a difference in what their government does."

Learning from Experts
Students recently met with delegates, staffers, and lobbyist Cal Whitehead III '96, managing partner at Commonwealth Strategy Group LLC, in the temporary General Assembly office building in Richmond, Virginia.

Delegate Chris Peace shared his career trajectory and his thoughts about the current state of the General Assembly, and Senator Jennifer McClellan's Chief of Staff Abbey Philips and Legislative Aide Justine Blincoe described the important role (and career path) of legislative staff to students.

"In addition, Delegate Cheryl Turpin stopped by to say hello to her former student, and current R-MC student, Andrew Teixeira '21," says Meagher. "And R-MC alum and Trustee Cal Whitehead spoke with students about the role of the contract lobbyist and shared tips for effective advocacy, stressing the importance of honesty and credibility. We are thankful that experts—including alumni—take time out of their busy schedules to talk to our students."

Andrew Mullen '19, a political science major, has enjoyed learning how the legislative process works.

"There is something really exciting about being at the General Assembly and witnessing everything that is going on," says Mullen, whose team is advocating for a bill that would increase the number of guidance counselors and mental health professionals in schools.  "It has been cool to meet legislators, who are a lot easier to talk to than people might think. I have learned in talking to delegates, and policy advocates like Cal Whitehead, that it is possible to be influential. People think that policy advocacy is solely for professional lobbyists, but that is not the case. There are thousands of different organizations and advocacy groups. You do not need to have money or power to have influence at the state level; you just need commitment and passion."

Meagher's students are also learning about the importance of young voices in government. During a visit to the offices of Virginia21, an advocacy organization for young Virginians, they met with Director of Engagement Tim Cywinski, who explained how young people are often underrepresented in politics and provided some advice for students on how to be heard.

Shadowing Citizen Advocates
On January 12, students shadowed citizen advocates during Virginia Higher Education Advocacy Day (VHEAD), tagging along with faculty and staff from R-MC, VCU, and other Virginia colleges and universities to experience firsthand how citizen advocacy works.

Hayley Davis '20 is a political science and Spanish major and communication studies minor.

"VHEAD was our first in-person introduction to citizen advocacy," she says. "The meetings with the legislative aids and interns were productive. VHEAD helped prepare us for our lobbying days. Virginia and the United States would be better off if more young people let their representatives know their opinions on the issues they're passionate about."

Meagher's students recently met at the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia (CICV) offices in Richmond and spoke with CICV President Robert Lambeth '71 about advocacy and how to succeed in a career in government and politics. The CICV works collaboratively in the areas of public policy, cost containment and professional development as well as providing support to its member institutions and their students.

Students met with representatives from the offices of Delegate Chris Jones '80, Delegate Chris Peace, Delegate Betsy Carr, Delegate Steve Landes, Delegate Nick Rush, Senator Siobhan Dunnavant, Senator Richard Stuart, and Senator Jill Vogel, among others.

"We talked to legislators and legislative aids to thank them for supporting higher education and to ask them to continue to do so as the new budget is being considered," says Mullen. "One of the bills we advocated against is Senate Bill 60, which would allow for-profit institutions to be eligible to receive the Tuition Assistance Grant (TAG). Many students in Virginia, including many at R-MC, rely on TAG to be able to go to college, and this bill would take some of that money away."

Established in 1972, the TAG program is designed to assist Virginia residents who attend accredited private, non-profit colleges and universities in Virginia for other than religious training or theological education. Students do not have to demonstrate financial need or file a financial statement, nor do they have to pay back the TAG grant. The CICV played an instrumental role in starting Virginia's TAG program.

Learning How to Advocate
Davis says the most intriguing part of Meagher's course is how close legislators stay to their constituents, and she is surprised at how easy it is to make one's voice heard by elected officials.

"My group is advocating for House Bill 705, which is Virginia's Net Neutrality Bill," she says. "If HB-705 is passed, it will prevent broadband companies from throttling, blocking or prioritizing some websites and content over others. This bill will ensure that the Internet is treated like a utility such as water or electricity, and not a commodity."

Davis, whose post-R-MC plans may include taking the Foreign Service exam or working in government relations, is currently interning in the General Assembly with Delegate Danica Roem's team.

"Professor Meagher's class ties well into my internship with Delegate Roem, and I hope it will be offered again," says Davis.

Generous Support
Meagher's course is supported by a grant from Brandeis University's International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life. The class is offered as part of the Educational Network for Active Civic Transformation (ENACT), a national program engaging undergraduates at colleges and universities in state-level legislative change by learning to work with legislators, staffers, and community organizations to advance policy.

Meagher was chosen as one of the program's initial Faculty Fellows in 2015, and in June 2018 he will serve with five other faculty from across the country as a mentor to the next class of fellows.