A photo of five people sitting around a rectangle shaped table. Two people sit on the left and right sides of the tame and a man sits at the end of the table. Behind the man is an American flag and a Virginia state flag.
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (center) asked follow-up questions to VCU students (left to right) Jewel Sparks, Spencer Thomas, Michael Polson and Pranjal Goswami about their lobbying presentation. (Thomas Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

In new Lobbying course, VCU students state their case – in front of a political pro

Joan Wodiska’s undergraduate class addressed notable state issues, and the audience for their final presentations included former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell.

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Finals are stressful enough, but imagine presenting your work in front of friends, family – and the former governor of Virginia.

On May 6, Virginia Commonwealth University students in POLI 330 Lobbying, a new course taught by adjunct political science professor Joan Wodiska, were prepared to “lobby” on issues of state interest. The audience for their final presentations included Robert F. McDonnell, who served as governor from 2010 to 2014 – and who had high praise for the students.

“I was just very impressed with the breadth of their thoughtfulness,” said McDonnell, who fielded audience questions in a session after the student segment at the Academic Learning Commons.

Wodiska developed the lobbying course to immerse students in a field that often can be oversimplified or maligned. She said other universities reserve such a course for law and graduate students, but undergraduates would benefit because “lobbying is a life skill” – one she said is “necessary to being an active, engaged and informed participant in our democratic process.”

“The course is designed to build students’ skills and confidence to navigate through complex systems of government, identify and solve problems, and, most importantly, self-advocate,” Wodiska said.

The class split into five “lobbying firms” that came up with their own names, logos and issues, which ranged from supersonic air travel to support for low-income high school students taking AP and IB exams. Students adhered to a code of ethics and wore professional attire as registered lobbyists would do.

Spencer Thomas, an interdisciplinary studies major, didn’t even know classmate Lauryn Hodge's first name for most of the semester, as he always referred to her as “Ms. Hodge.”

“It’s been really interesting because there isn’t any other class where it’s going to directly simulate what you’d see in a professional environment,” Thomas said.

Like other students, Hodge took the course because she didn’t know a lot about lobbying, a field that can conjure images of well-dressed glad-handers with loose ethics and looser money. She wanted to discover more.

“I’ve learned that it’s not all bad – they actually do a lot more than you think,” said Hodge, a graduating senior majoring in Interdisciplinary Studies. “A lot of the policies, executive decisions, legislative decisions wouldn’t have even been approved without lobbyists.”

The biggest test for the students came in front of McDonnell, who in addition to governor served as Virginia attorney general and as a member of the House of Delegates. McDonnell interacted with many lobbyists during his political career and said he dealt with most of the issues the students pursued.

McDonnell said the best lobbyists were organized and would clearly state the reasons for supporting their position – but were honest about the complexity of issues. They also were on point, distilling hours of research into perhaps a half-hour presentation.

“I think these kids seem to understand that,” McDonnell said of the VCU students, “by how succinct they were. The materials that I got to read were very good. They seem to consider every single bit of influencing the legislature – not just the governor but people even from other states – to build a national coalition on some of these federal issues.”

Wodiska praised her students, too, for meeting her high expectations. “Every student gave each other, and VCU, their absolute best effort,” she said.

A photo of five people standing behind a podium and in front of two screens with projections on them. To the right of the group is an American flag and a Virginia state flag, along with a man sitting in a chair looking up at the screens.
(Left to right) VCU students Justin Casella, Saarah Aburub, Arrington Evans, Carter George and Ben Yerdon presented their lobbying proposal for AI regulations and guidance to former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (far right). (Thomas Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Here are the five student “lobbying firms” and the issues they addressed:

Aquila Strategies

Liam Franco, Iain Hill, Trey O’Shea and Nick Popeck

The firm advocated to change the federal ban on supersonic jet travel over land, proposing a modern regulatory framework that could accommodate technological advancements and address environmental, noise and public safety concerns.

The Cordillera Group

Pranjal Goswami, Michael Polson, Jewel Sparks and Spencer Thomas

The firm promoted House Bill 910, which would require data centers in Virginia to report their energy usage and sources on a quarterly basis. The students said this requirement would promote transparency and accountability, enabling better monitoring and management of environmental impacts. By making this data publicly accessible in an aggregated form, the bill would allow decision-makers to make more efficient use of Virginia’s energy resources as the number of data centers continue to grow.

Education Equity Associates

Kelly Runyon, Sofhia Pineda, Vanessa Vargas and James Hayes

The firm supported a state budget amendment for $750,000 to provide AP/IB exam fee assistance for low-income high school students. The firm said that without a statewide program, each school division handles the financial burden differently, resulting in some districts covering all costs while others cover none.

LESSER Voices Consulting

Ryan Hur, Erin Dunnigan,  Lauryn Hodge and Sean Kilby

The firm sought the governor’s support of a state constitutional amendment to automatically restore civil rights to nonviolent felons upon release from incarceration, as well as mandate that the governor review cases of those with violent felony convictions within 60 days. The students say the amendment would promote reintegration, enhance democracy, reduce recidivism and support equality.

Sarah Connor Strategies

Carter George, Ben Yerdon, Saarah Aburub, Justin Casella and Arrington Evans

The firm promoted a three-prong approach to regulating artificial intelligence in Virginia: (1) Adopt an AI Bill of Rights through a legislative subcommittee, building on Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order on AI. (2) Repurpose $500,000 from the Virginia Information Technologies Agency budget for research on AI. (3) Request that the governor’s budget include funding of a Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission study to help the legislature better understand AI.