Lauren McClellan, Jackson McMillan
Capital News Service
College students from across Virginia met at the General Assembly this past week to lobby legislators about progressive issues, such as Medicaid expansion, women’s reproductive rights and education for undocumented students.
University of Virginia alumna Clair Wyatt founded the Virginia Student Power Network in fall 2013 after she saw a need for students across the state to organize and come together to discuss and act on issues important to the state’s higher education students.
“The main student coordinators of the Virginia Student Power Network decided last fall that we wanted to have a statewide student lobby day during the 2014 General Assembly session,” Wyatt stated in an email. “We went to the General Assembly to tell our legislators to prioritize educational access, as well as social, economic, and environmental justice, because they need to be beholden to the interests of Virginian citizens — particularly us as the next generation — not private and corporate interests.”
Grassroots movements can have a significant influence on issues, said Kate Miller, a U.Va. student.
“It’s really easy to be bogged down and feel like you can’t do anything once you realize how many problems the communities are facing,” Miller said. “Just reaching out to other people and finding a way to work with the system and to help fix some of these issues and just generally make a difference is a really, really wonderful thing.”
Former student Jordan Gregory of Petersburg, Va. said healthcare issues are what attracted him to participate with Virginia Student Power Network.
“I fall in that percentile that doesn’t have healthcare,” Gregory said. “If I was to break my leg right now, I would have to pay out of pocket and that’s steep.”
About 15 students from Virginia Tech, U.Va., Virginia State University and VCU met up to talk with their respective legislators.
The day started with a training session in the Capitol, where Cathy Woodson from Virginia Organizing, a progressive grassroots advocacy organization, led the students in a roleplaying exercise. Students had the chance to learn how to best go about speaking to their local legislators. Addie Alexander, an event organizer, played different legislators to help prepare the students.
After the role-playing exercise, Delegate Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, talked to the students about issues he has worked on this General Assembly session. His talking points included women’s reproductive health, Virginia’s proposed version of the DREAM Act and environmental conservation.
“Virginia should be the leader in renewable energy,” Lopez said. “But we’re not.”
Students then were given schedules for their meetings with legislators and went to watch the session.
Rachel Sine, a VCU student, met with aides for Delegate Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and Sen. John Watkins, R-Midlothian.
McClellan’s legislative aide Abbey Philips said McClellan shared similar position’s with the students on higher education, Medicaid expansion and reproductive health issues.
Philips also said McClellan supports Medicaid expansion because it would afford coverage to many people who live in her district.
“(McClellan) has close to 30,000 constituents in her district that are currently uncovered,” Philips said. “There is a possibility that we will be holding some educational forums about Medicaid for our constituents so they know about it, and so they know what their options are with the health exchange.”
Sine said she thought her meetings with legislators went well.
“(The legislators) agreed with us on the policies we went in there to talk about,” Sine said, “and they were open to have a discussion with us and hear us out.”
Virginia Tech student Claire Wicklund met with an aide from the office of Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, and Delegate Joseph Yost, R-Pearisburg.
“We knew going in that Edwards would be really supportive, so it was cool going in to talk about how we can work together in the future as a student group with a legislator,” Wicklund said. “We were kind of surprised talking with Yost because we actually did have his support in some of the issues we were talking about up to an extent.”
Miller met with aides for Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, and Delegate David Toscano, D-Charlottesville.
“The two of them were very supportive,” Miller said. “Both of them were mindful of the issues we talked about, which were reproductive rights, the environmental legislation on solar energy and the DREAM Act.”
David Brown, the special assistant to Democratic leader Toscano, said he and the students discussed a wide range of issues.
“It was very interesting and helpful to get the input of students who are very concerned about contemporary issues,” Brown said. “I think it’s really important for (Toscano) to understand where all of his constituents stand on issues including students.”
The students said they were happy with their experience and thought it helped them to get a better perspective of Virginia’s legislature.
“Engaging within that system was really interesting because you read about it in textbooks in class and you hear about how it works, but it’s very different up close and personal,” Miller said. “It was quite interesting to see how everything was shifting around.”