The College of William and Mary enrolls more than 8,000 students a year, and their impact on the City of Williamsburg is inevitable, according to William and Mary public policy student Caleb Rogers.
Rogers wanted to start a stream of communication between the two, so he created the Student Residents Group.
Rogers worked with the city’s economic development group last summer, where officials took an interest in what he had to say. And he realized a couple of things:
“One was that there were fun things going on in the city, and sometimes it seemed to students like there weren’t too many fun things going on, but I knew as a student we don’t really see those pushed out to us too much,” Rogers said. “And the second one was many city staffers were saying we would love to hear from the student body, we just rarely do.”
But his views couldn’t represent those of the entire student body, he said, so he created the Student Residents Group from his position as the appointed Undersecretary of Williamsburg Affairs in the school’s Student Assembly, their student government. He passed a bill in the Student Assembly that officially put the group in their constitution in December and started recruitment.
Through Student Happenings, a William and Mary email digest of announcements sent twice a week, the club gained 32 student members who meet every two weeks in a series of committees, such as outreach, policy research, social media, representatives and web manager/development.
“I think everybody comes into it with the hopes to accomplish something different,” said Liam Watson, a member and government student. “The link between the Student Assembly and the real world is the Student Residents Group.”
Watson, a part of the outreach committee, hopes to connect with Williamsburg’s Neighborhood Relations Committee to have conversations with Williamsburg residents. Another student on the committee will reach out to transportation services.
“I’m interested in speaking with the different groups of people that live inside of Williamsburg and maybe have had trouble dealing with students in the past, but also students who may have had trouble dealing with the people that live in the neighborhoods here — so a two-way street there,” Watson said. “It’s very much pulling from a bunch of different student interests. But the broader theme is we wanted to have a student voice in how these organizations operate.”
The group hopes to speak at City Council meetings and meet with city commissioners and employees about issues relevant to students.
They have plans to construct a website with news and information on nearby events of interest to students, such as restaurants with student specials, entertainment and job opportunities.
Their meetings begin with a community-leader speaker. The first was attended by the city manager and mayor. City Councilman Benming Zhang spoke at the second.
“I think the ultimate aim is to cultivate a sense of interest in getting involved in local government,” Zhang said. “So one of the things I spoke with him about was that, generally speaking, we read about issues we’re incredibly passionate about but oftentimes people don’t imagine how some of those problems that we face in society — race, policing, equity — how all those issues actually play out in the local government arena.”
Olga Zhugayevich, an environmental engineering student at the school, joined the group in hopes of making a social difference in Williamsburg. She’s reaching out to organizations such as Williamsburg’s House of Mercy, Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity.
“I thought this would be a nice way to find what’s out in the real world and the reverse is I feel like a lot of the issues we have here is poverty and I want Williamsburg to address it, I want students to help take a part of it. I want to pop the bubble,” Zhugayevich said. “My focus is more so on parts of the community that are interested in increasing the well being of everyone else whether it’s environmental, political, social. There’s so many other organizations that exist that either we don’t reach out to them or they don’t reach out to us.”
The group will have its third meeting in April and has short-term goals to attend the upcoming City Council meeting and distribute a survey on campus to poll the student body on what issues they’re interested in.
“On the topic of goals, it’s kind of two-fold. One is getting students more involved in the city. And the other side is involving the city directly. If there’s a piece of legislation that might be affecting students they can say, here’s what students think of that or if they’re for instance going through their GIO summit and saying what can we be working toward over the next two years students can say here’s where we’d like you to be,” Rogers said. “So there’s a reactive and proactive side of it.”
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