By Holly South
In medieval times, serving as a page was the first step in a boy’s training to become a knight. Pages cared for horses, trained for combat, and served a nobleman or knight by delivering messages, assisting at meals and cleaning weapons.
Modern legislative pages in the Senate of Virginia also have an array of responsibilities, and, according to a new history on the program, are expected to adhere to “an intense training course built around a strict code of conduct ... just as pages in the Middle Ages learned a code of courtesy and the behavior expected of a knight.”
The first legislative page in Virginia was hired to work in the House of Delegates in 1848. The Senate followed suit in 1850. And “Page by Page: A History of Page/Messenger Service in the Senate of Virginia,” details the evolution of the latter program and includes photos and contributions from former pages and program staff.
The Senate of Virginia’s program, geared toward 13- and 14-year-olds, is unique in many ways: It’s long (full time for seven to nine weeks), students live in a hotel supervised by chaperones, it includes a tutoring program, involves several staff, and enlists community partners such as the Virginia Credit Union—for a class on money management—and Central Virginia Food Bank, the location for the community service project.
But what makes it truly special, says program director Bladen Finch, is “the amount of support it has [from staff, legislators, alumni, parents] and the amount of attention it receives.” The program this year attracted 216 applicants for 35 spots.
Finch, a former page himself (class of ’94), led a 2016 restructuring of the program to focus on leadership. Two former pages worked with him on the redesign of what is now known as the Senate Page Leadership Program.
“We reworked everything—from the way we schedule assignments to the social events they attend to the off-site tours to the professional development.” He’s proud of how the page program has evolved. “We think ours is the best in the nation, possibly the world. We take great pride in this opportunity [and] we take it very seriously.”
The website lists the program components:
- “The Responsible Young Professional”: Pages staff committee meetings “in a backup clerk capacity,” answer the phone, and provide basic concierge services at the State Capitol.
- “The Evolving Leader”: Includes “team building scenarios designed to practice leadership skills,” meeting with elected officials, and “sessions pertaining to etiquette, money management, cyberbullying and life after the page leadership program.”
- “The Civic-Minded Young Adult”: Pages participate as a team in a community service project.
The result is a program that is, according to Finch, “challenging in a good way.” He acknowledges that “we do push them, and that’s part of developing into a leader and learning how to manage their time. They’re only with us for seven to nine weeks. That’s not a lot of time, and you want to give them as much exposure as possible.”
Why 13- and 14-year-olds? Because, as Finch notes, at that age they’re “mature enough to work in a public environment, and you can train them relatively easily to answer the phone [and] interact professionally.” At the same time, they’re “young enough where they can’t drive” and are still dependent on adults.
Participants study the Virginia Constitution and learn the daily legislative calendar. They interact regularly with senators on and off the floor, engage with the public as ambassadors for both the program and the Capitol, and develop a bond over the course of the session with their page class. All while keeping up with their schoolwork.
At the end of each session there’s a noticeable increase in confidence among the participants, who “come to us very shy, very timid,” observes Finch. “This is a strange new world.” By the end, “they have a much better understanding of time management, personal responsibility … and the legislative process.”
They’re able to demonstrate their newfound legislative expertise during the program capstone, a mock legislative session. Pages switch roles with legislators to debate topics they researched; legislators serve as pages.
Among the several bills debated in 2018, one requiring K-12 schools to offer a foreign language failed while another increasing the penalties for dumping toxic chemicals into state waterways passed. (Watch here.)
A follow-up to “Page by Page” is already in the works and will focus on those who entered public service in the hopes of reconnecting them to the program. Profiles include a current vice mayor, a former state secretary of commerce and an 18-year-old elected to city council.
Finch, who previously worked in university admissions, is building this alumni component to “teach young people networking skills and exposure to different career paths so that we build a stronger support network for the experience.”
When asked the one thing he’d like the pages to learn, it’s “that there is value in public service and all of the negativity they hear about government dysfunction is not the whole story about what goes on in their state capitol. They get a different perspective.”
Holly South is a policy specialist in NCSL's Legislative Staff Services Program, which provides strategic, programmatic and administrative support to the professional staff associations of NCSL and develops training and information programs for the nation's more than 30,000 legislative staff. She also staffs the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries.