Virginia Commonwealth University

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Students Capitalize on Legislative Experience

May 7, 2011

By Katherine Coates and Alexander Chang
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – During the General Assembly’s recent session, Nantasha Williams spent her days trying to get legislators’ signatures on bills, learning about constituents’ needs and researching information on complex issues. Like most state lawmakers, she spent many hours in the hectic and fast-paced environment at Capitol Square.

But Williams isn’t a legislator. She is a college student taking part in the Virginia Capital Semester program.

The program is run by the L. Douglas Wilder School of Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University and is a mix of an internship, a class and a scholarship.

After an extensive application process, 35 students from across Virginia were chosen to participate in the program. The selected students each were assigned a state legislator to work for during the legislative session and also attended a seminar class. (Students also can work with the governor’s office, a state agency or an organization seeking to shape government policy.) In return, the students receive six college credits and money toward their tuition.

The program gives students real-life experience working in politics by taking advantage of VCU’s proximity to the state Capitol, said Jen Thompson, director of external relations for the Wilder School.

“VCU students have an advantage, but other universities don’t have that advantage if you look at colleges like Virginia Tech or Norfolk State,” Thompson said.

“So coming up with this idea was a way to get the best of the best from VCU students to perform internships at the General Assembly but also allowing other students around the commonwealth that same opportunity.”

‘Thomas Jefferson’s Rules’

Nantasha Williams studies political science at VCU; she applied for the program hoping the experience would boost her résumé. Williams worked in the office of Delegate Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg. She admits that at times, working in the General Assembly could be tough.

“It was a really competitive environment,” she said.

Williams came to VCU from New York City and was surprised by the historic nature of Virginia state government.

“Virginia is probably one of the oldest state governments in the country,” she said. “A lot of Thomas Jefferson’s rules are still on the books, and they still work.”

Williams said watching the Virginia government at work made her want see how the government in her home state of New York functions.

Complicated Legislative Process

While most Capital Semester students are college juniors and seniors, Jeremy Codiroli of Virginia Tech applied to the program as a freshman and was accepted. He spent the semester balancing classes, a job and the Capital Semester program.

Codiroli studies systems engineering – a type of engineering that looks at how business systems work. The Capital Semester program gave him the opportunity to see in person how the state government system operates.

“Everyone talks about how inefficient the law-making process is,” Codiroli said. “It is a very complicated process, and I came to the conclusion that our state government’s best efficiency is in its inefficiency.”

Codiroli said it is important that bills go through a long, deliberative process. Otherwise, he said, Virginia’s laws would be changing constantly every year.

‘I Was Part of This Process’

Vonda Johnson, who is majoring in social work at Norfolk State University, also participated in the Capital Semester program this year. She worked as a legislative intern for Sen. Yvonne Miller, D-Norfolk.

Norfolk State does not have a program that offers such legislative experience, so the VCU program was “a blessing,” Johnson said.

“When you experience it firsthand, you see exactly who makes the decisions and why they make these decisions,” Johnson said.

Besides assisting Miller and tracking the status of bills, Johnson supported House Bill 2037, which was sponsored by Delegate Chris Peace, R-Mechanicsville. That legislation prohibits people from calling themselves a “social worker” in writing or advertising unless they are licensed by the Virginia Board of Social Work.

Johnson said she talked to Miller, lobbyists and other students about the bill “from beginning to the end.”

“I rallied people, I supported the bill, and it was just a really wonderful thing to see how I was part of this process,” Johnson said.

Her support paid off: The bill was approved in February by the General Assembly (Miller voted for it). Gov. Bob McDonnell recommended technical changes in the wording, and the assembly adopted those recommendations in April.

‘Lasting Impact on Virginia’

The Capital Semester program offers an opportunity for students to see the journey from bill to law up close.

Nicole Storm, a political science student at VCU, said was moved by the debate over a bill that could cause most abortion clinics in Virginia to close. She said the topic came to life when she watched Delegate Vivian Watts, D-Annandale, give a speech in opposition to the bill.

“I had studied in class that states were placing more restrictions on Roe v. Wade, slowly rendering it obsolete, and here it was happening right in front of me,” Storm said.

Storm is going to continue learning about politics in graduate school at Virginia Tech. She said the Capital Semester program was an essential educational experience for her and other participants.

“I do think that this group of young people who made up the Capital Semester program this year will one day be filling the halls of the General Assembly building. … That is how we will make a lasting impact on Virginia,” Storm said.

That impact goes beyond Virginia, Thompson said. Officials in other states – and in countries such as Uganda in Africa – have learned about the Capital Semester program.

“Because it has worked so well, our partners at the General Assembly have recommended the program not only to their colleagues in other states but also gave a presentation to a Ugandan delegation to learn about the program and to implement it in their country,” Thompson said.

“So it really is a one-of-a-kind program, and people now internationally have interest in how it works and how to implement in their home legislatures.”


CNS reporter Alexander Chang produced this slideshow about the Capital Semester program.


 

On the Web

More information about the Capital Semester program can be found at www.vcu.edu/capitalsemester. The deadline to apply to the program is Oct. 1.