Erik Conyers smiled as he stepped into Virginia’s House of Delegates chamber — a room he spent a formative period of his life in a decade ago.
Now 24, he works as a special assistant to constituent engagement in Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office, but at 14 he was among a handful of teens buzzing around Virginia’s Capitol, running errands for lawmakers and watching democracy in action.
The House of Delegates and state Senate are accepting applications for their page programs in which several dozen 13- and 14-year-olds from around the state spend the legislative session assisting lawmakers with various tasks (like meal and paper deliveries) and observing committee and floor meetings. The program culminates with the pages conducting their own mock session, debating model policies from the floor of the chamber, and electing members of the group to serve in positions like lieutenant governor or Speaker of the House to oversee the process.
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In what is essentially a paid internship, the pages spend full days in the Capitol, receive meal stipends and lodge in the Omni hotel in their off hours. They also have to stay on top of their schoolwork.
“It was a good challenge,” Conyers said. “I think it really prepared me for the real world.”
He noted how the program falls at a pivotal time in participants’ lives — newly into adolescence and just before starting high school.
“I felt like it really allowed me to balance my time and figure out my priorities,” he said. “I had to balance schoolwork and then being here from 8 to 5 o’clock every day.”
Applications for the programs, which opened this month, will close in October. Teens and their families can get information on how to apply through the Capitol Classroom portion of the General Assembly website.
Next year’s legislative session is scheduled for Jan. 10 to March 9.
The Senate says it receives 150 to 200 applications each year for 36 to 40 spots. The Speaker of the House usually gets about 250 applications for 32 available appointments.
Students accepted into the programs are responsible for coordinating time away from their classrooms and for the assignments they must complete while away.
The experience also fed Conyers’ growing interest in government. When he later attended Virginia Commonwealth University, he studied political science along with his passion for fashion merchandising. Eventually, he went on to work for Republican Garrison Coward’s 2019 House campaign. (Coward lost to Democrat Dawn Adams.) Following an internship in the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office, Conyers took on the full-time role he now holds in the administration.
Virginia is among over 30 states to have page programs in at least one chamber, most of which are geared toward middle school or high school students.
Paul Nardo, the clerk of the House of Delegates, called pages “the arms and legs” of keeping things moving during sessions.
Each year, the House program costs an average of $300,000, and the Senate program costs about $264,000 — accounting for housing the students, chaperones, salaries and stipends.
“You get what you invest in,” Nardo said of the programs.
More than administrative work during legislative sessions, pages participate in professional development workshops and community service projects. Some alumni have gone on to careers in public service or politics.
House and Senate records indicate that Virginia’s page programs date to the 1850s. The positions were held by adults then and later geared toward teens.
It wasn’t until 1967 that Vincent Tucker became Virginia’s first Black person to serve as a page and, in 1970, Sallie McCutcheon became Virginia’s first female page.
Nowadays, it’s a more diverse cohort of blazer-adorned teens shuttling around the Capitol.
While the pages come from around the state and bring different insights, passions and backgrounds, interests in public service and professional development are threads connecting them.
“My time there instilled public service in me,” said Karli Foster, who was a Senate page in 2013.
When the session ended, she got involved in a nonprofit in Martinsville called The Harvest Foundation and interned in local government in Southside’s Henry and Franklin counties. She now works as an economic development specialist in Roanoke County, which feeds her interest in economics.
Originally from Martinsville, more than three hours southwest of Richmond, she said she had not known about the program. Her father, who worked for the Department of Juvenile Justice, was in Richmond frequently and suggested that she apply.
Foster said experiencing debates and amendments as bills passed and failed was a thrilling experience.
“It was really cool to see another part of the state and get to interact with our state legislators on a daily basis,” she said.
Sometimes a page’s name badge matches that of a sitting legislator. When pages are introduced on the first day of session, this is when a collective “oooooh” can be heard from some of the lawmakers.
But applications for the programs are open to any interested teenager around the state — so long as they will be 13 or 14 during the legislative session.
It was by chance that Drew Goodove learned of the program.
A Virginia Beach resident, he initially learned of the opportunity while visiting his grandparents in Richmond. They took him for a tour of the Capitol and, when he learned about the page program, he knew it was the professional development experience he was seeking.
Beyond performing tasks during the workday, pages are also exposed to workshops on such topics as fiscal management or cybersecurity. Page alumni often visit to discuss their careers or education as young, or older adults.
For Goodove, a highlight of his 2019 experience was the mock session where he was the mock lieutenant governor.
“You sit where the lieutenant governor actually sits in the Virginia Senate chamber; you get to use their gavel,” Goodove explained. “The really funny part about it is that the senators are actually pages that come and attend the mock session. So it’s kind of like the roles reverse, which was funny.”
Goodove enjoyed serving as a Senate page so much that he went on to serve in the U.S. Senate’s page program in Washington in 2022.
The vibe, he said, was not as jovial as in the Virginia Senate, where there are only 40 lawmakers who, despite partisan differences, have formed a camaraderie. But yet again, he witnessed lawmaking in action.
Now 18, Goodove will soon attend Duke University, where he plans to pursue a career in technology — an asset he said he may someday bring to Congress if he decides to run and prevails.
“I would take the expertise I get from whatever (science, technology, math and engineering) field I go into, probably, and apply that to politics, because I think that’s where our country is moving,” Goodove said.
Like Goodove, Bill Oglesby learned of the program serendipitously. A friend of his had taken part in the program, and Oglesby became intrigued enough to apply. This was back in 1970, when Oglesby was a Richmond-area teen, years before he would work as a broadcast journalist and VCU professor.
When applying for the program, he recalled being so determined that he walked into the office of his state senator at the time, William Parker, a Democrat who served in the chamber from 1980 to 1988.
Oglesby recalled walking downtown with a friend when they realized they were near his office. So he decided to be bold.
“Being a clueless 14-year-old, I just went in and took the elevator up to his office and asked if I can see him,” Oglesby said with a laugh.
He remembers his mom answering the phone one night with the senator on the other line to tell his family he’d been accepted.
Oglesby went on to be assigned to then-Sen. Doug Wilder, a future lieutenant governor and governor. Oglesby described seeing history in action when Wilder, the first African American elected to the Senate since Reconstruction, gave a floor speech urging the legislature to change Virginia’s state song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia,” which had references to slavery. (Lawmakers made multiple attempts to amend and/or replace the song in the coming years, before legislators eventually shelved it, declaring it state song emeritus.)
Wilder went on to become the nation’s first elected Black governor.
“It was just a really great experience to see,” Oglesby said.
While Oglesby’s experience as a page reaffirmed his growing interest in law — the reporters he watched on the sidelines also influenced his future career in journalism.
Flash-forward 53 years — and he still visits the Capitol with a cohort of other pages who’d served in 1970. Their reunions happen every five years, and it’s a chance to revisit their old haunts before having lunch or dinner and checking in on one another’s lives.
One of them, Ben Dendy, never fully left the Capitol.
Dendy first became a House page at 13, when he was fresh from volunteering in Democrat William Battle’s gubernatorial campaign. (Battle lost the 1969 election to Republican Linwood Holton.)
Dendy says growing up in a politically engaged household sparked his interest at a young age. So his time as a page continued his early political education — inspiring him to go on to serve as a legislative aide, work on more campaigns and eventually serve as a senior staff member for Democratic Govs. Chuck Robb and Gerald Baliles.
In his work as president of the Vectre Corp., a communications and lobbying firm, Dendy can still be found wandering around the Capitol. Dendy is also a member of the VCU board of visitors.
“I think a key thing definitely was connections,” he said of a skill he gained during his time in the program.
And — “you just learned a great deal about the governmental process.”
Oglesby, who is part of the reunion of 1970-era pages, agrees.
“It’s learning how the government works in a way that sticks with you much more than just sitting and learning about it at school.”
Charlotte Rene Woods (804) 649-6254