Students lobby for financial aid at General Assembly

Students met with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe during Rams Day on the Hill on Feb. 25. Students advocated for more financial aid for state schools and better employment opportunities after college. Photo by Audry Dubon.

Janeal Downs
Staff Writer

About 20 VCU students gathered at the state capitol to lobby for and speak with legislators about concerns in the state government on Monday, Feb. 25.

Representatives from the Student Government Association, Virginia21 at VCU and other students advocated for more financial aid and jobs after college, in a meeting with lawmakers such as Delegate Kirk Cox (R-Chesterfield), Delegate Jennifer McClellan (D-Henrico), Sen. Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax), Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) and others, said Brendan Hood, a junior business administration and marketing major.

“Rams Day on the Hill is an opportunity for students to not only represent the university but represent themselves while lobbying,” Hood said.

As a senator in the Student Government Association, Hood worked on a committee in the SGA that organized the event.

“The reason why I’m passionate about it is because I think it’s important for students to go first hand and talk to the legislators that make decisions on behalf of the commonwealth of Virginia,” Hood said.

After they took pictures and spoke with the governor about their concerns, students went and sat in on a session in the capitol where they were introduced by Cox, Hood said.

“I believe that as VCU students we have the opportunity to not only show our university but also represent students across the commonwealth,” Hood said. “There’s so many great universities and I think it’s a great opportunity for VCU to emerge as one of those great universities.”

For the day of lobbying, the students prepared talking points beforehand and worked with the seasoned lobbying student organization, Virginia21.

“Lobbying is kind of hit or miss, sometimes there are lots of people who just won’t change their mind but the important thing is students going in and talking about the issues that will directly affect them,” said Sabrina Fuller, a sophomore broadcast journalism major and the VCU campus president of Virginia21. “If we take that stand there’s a good chance that you can have that effect on at least one lawmaker.”

The group planned to hold Rams Day on the Hill in February during session because it is when the General Assembly is most active, Fuller said.

“I think I can’t stress enough how important it is for students to talk on their own behalf about the issues that affect them,” Fuller said. “You just really need to be your own advocate always, don’t assume that people are always going to speak up for you.”

Along with students in the SGA and Virginia21, concerned students participated in Rams Day on the Hill.

“I think that there were definitely some people who were on board and some people who were not necessarily in mind with providing more money for education and financial aid,” said Ariana Sites, sophomore international social justice and social work major. “But I think through repetition … hopefully everything will come together and we’ll see some positive outcomes because of it.”

Sites said she thinks Rams Day on the Hill was successful and the group received good feedback from legislators they met with; however, VCU political science professor John Aughenbaugh said lobbying is just a piece to the process.

“In terms of being able to impact specific legislation, typically (lobbying is) not all that successful,” Aughenbaugh said. “On the other hand they do serve a very valuable process function.”

Events like Rams Day on the Hill allow for students to have a voice within the legislation branch, he said.

A group of students organizing is  more effective than one VCU student voicing their concerns to register the students’ opinions with the 100 delegates and 40 senators Aughenbaugh said.

“You can’t really go ahead and complain that state government is unresponsive if you don’t at least show up to something like Rams Day on the Hill,” Aughenbaugh said. “The more you make someone aware of your concerns the more likely they will be able to remember those issues when they’re actually crafting a law.”

There was an increase in the number of voters in the 2008 and 2012 presidential election, but Aughenbaugh said people between 18 and 25 are the least likely to vote especially in statewide elections.

Increased state spending on prisons and health care are also factors in how much the government spends in relation to K-12 and higher education, Aughenbaugh said. With an increased number of college age graduating high school seniors, he said Virginia will have to make some decisions on how much money they provide for financial aid and for higher education.

Aughenbaugh also said students getting out to officials and lobbying is “part of democracy” and important in the long run.

“Understand it is called the legislative process, it is the lawmaking process,” Aughenbaugh said. “Something that right now the General Assembly may be considering but it gets tabled or needs further study, well two, three, four years down the road it might be considered a good idea.”

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