Radford University’s 24th annual Advocacy Day in Richmond continued the longest-running tradition among Virginia’s four-year public institutions of student-led engagement with state lawmakers to advance issues critical to higher education as well as initiatives that benefit all residents of the Commonwealth.
At the heart of the experience was a focus on building connections.
Prior to a day of meetings on Jan. 24 with General Assembly members, the group of 48 students, one of the largest to take part in Advocacy Day, gathered to learn how they can make their voices heard and how their time in Richmond can open new doors.
“If you’re here today, you’re invested in your future,” said Wyatt Toehlke ’18, Virginia’s assistant secretary of commerce and trade.
Toehlke was one of four guests who participated in a panel discussion with Radford students led by university Board of Visitors member Jennifer Wishon Gilbert. The panel also featured Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Gee, Virginia21 Executive Director Kate Slayton and Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Jeff Schapiro. The discussion was designed to give an insider’s perspective on both the state’s political process and how students can use an event like Advocacy Day to reach their career goals.
“You are students learning new things in this place of ideas,” Gilbert said. “This is a place where there have been ideas that have changed the world.”
A significant part of Toehlke’s time with the students was spent sharing how his Radford education prepared him to pursue his passion – a career in politics. The Virginia Beach native spoke about the political science program, pointing out how the quality of his professors and the personalized learning at Radford inspired him to forge his own path to learning Russian and studying abroad in Ukraine while working towards his degree. The experience, he said, prepared him to serve in Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration as one of the state’s top executives on international trade.
Toehlke also made himself available to students during the Advocacy Day networking event on the night of Jan. 23.
“I think people conflate networking with something negative,” Toehlke said. “Networking should be treated as a chance to have a meaningful conversation with someone because you find that person interesting and engaging. You’re not just trying to get their business card. I’m encouraging students to approach it in a genuine way.”
Gee, who rose from executive director of the Virginia Lottery to the role of secretary of the commonwealth by her mid-30s, echoed this sentiment.
“Your network is your strength,” she said. “I think so much of that is getting to know people on a personal level. Get to know people that you work with. Take those professional relationships and go one inch deeper.”
While encouraging students to build connections that can enhance their futures, Gee tied relationship-building to the work students would do with lawmakers the following day.
“There’s election season, and then there’s what gets done here – it’s totally different,” Gee said. “They (lawmakers) know each other, and it’s collegial. There’s real work being done here. And it’s important to advocate for your issues.”
Slayton’s nonprofit, Virginia21, empowers college students to participate in the legislative process. A key bill that Radford students brought to the attention of lawmakers, the Hunger-Free Campus Grant Program, concerns food security at state institutions.
“Hunger is getting new attention, especially the connection between eating and mental health,” Slayton said.
She pointed to the importance of improving both the quantity and quality of food available to college students, a message that resonated with Madison Canterbury of the Class of 2025.
“I’m a future educator, so I’m invested in this issue at the college level but also for young learners and seniors,” Canterbury said. “I want to make sure we’re helping people of all generations.”
Canterbury, a resident of Fauquier County, was grateful for the opportunity to build connections that will benefit her future, as well as outcomes for all Virginians.
“You really do have a voice here, and legislators are hearing us,” she said.
Patrick Reed for Radford University