Dressed in a stuffy, over-sized spider costume, 5-foot-tall Destiny LeVere Bolling, ‘16, danced to upbeat music and high-fived cheering fans before a home University of Richmond basketball game. Webstur, UR’s mascot, had a special place in Bolling’s heart, which compelled her to volunteer for the role at least once during her student years. Little did the fans know, beneath that fluffy arachnid exterior was a future politician passionate about altruism and advocacy.
Bolling is the democratic nomination for the 80th District seat in the 2023 Virginia House of Delegates election. Bolling is not the only UR alum in the race for this month’s congressional election in Virginia. Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, ‘04, who said he never planned on going into politics, now represents the 72nd District in the Virginia House of Delegates and is the Democratic nomination for the 16th District seat in the Virginia State Senate.
Bolling and VanValkenburg follow in the path of Rep. Jennifer McClellan, ‘94, who served in the Virginia General Assembly for over 17 years. McClellan is now Virginia’s first Black woman to serve in the U.S. Congress, representing the fourth district of Virginia in the House of Representatives.
In the corridors of power where debates and decisions shape the future, these alumni-turned-politicians are leaving an indelible mark on the state’s political landscape. But the question remains: how did Virginia’s government end up with a spider infestation of a different kind?
In fall 2014, Political Science professor Ernest McGowen was walking across UR’s campus when he saw a familiar face. Bolling, who sat in on his Introduction to American Government class as a high schooler, had recently arrived on campus as a first-year student.
From the start of her first year, Bolling knew she wanted to be a politician and was ready to do whatever was necessary. She graduated with a double major in political science and international studies and a minor in Latin American and Iberian studies.
Bolling had a strong presence on campus. Her friend, Amelia Mitrotz, ‘16, whom she sung with in Schola Cantorum, said that “anytime that she wasn't really studying, you could probably find her supporting a student organization, or you could find her doing community service out in the larger city of Richmond.”
McGowen taught Bolling in multiple courses in her four years at UR and was impressed by her work ethic, ambition and intelligence.
“She was one of the people that everyone else gravitated to,” McGowen said.
Bolling held several leadership roles on campus: officer in the Rho Mu chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, co-founder of the Multicultural Student Solidarity Network, officer in Westhampton College Government Association and officer of the Richmond Rowdies.
During her sophomore year, Bolling was a sophomore scholar in residence in political science professor Monti Datta’s Human Rights and Modern Day Slavery class. On a class trip to Los Angeles, Datta was impressed by Bolling’s demeanor and natural leadership. During the trip, the class heard testimony from Maria Suarez, a survivor of modern day slavery. Datta said Bolling was a wise and balanced presence among her classmates, helping the group process some of the emotional stress that can come from hearing the stories of human trafficking survivors.
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Upon graduation, Bolling’s ideal job was to work for the State Department to help build foreign diplomacy, a dream she said has not yet died. But after graduating from UR, she got her masters degree in U.S. foreign policy and security studies from George Washington University and became a communications director for the Virginia AFL-CIO labor union. Then in June 2023, she put her name on the ballot for the Virginia House of Delegates District 80 democratic primary, and won.
Bolling entered state politics in a period of upheaval. In February, McClellan vacated her State Senate seat to succeed former congressman Donald McEachin, who died in November 2022. Several other General Assembly members are vacating their seats to run for higher office. Because of Virginia’s 2021 redistricting process, the districts some representatives currently represent will no longer include where their primary residences are come this month’s election. All of the movement meant that Bolling was not the only candidate hungry for a taste of power.
Bolling credits some of her success to her professors at UR, who took active interest in building her skills and pushing her in the classroom by asking hard questions. Now, she feels confident enough to knock on strangers’ doors or have tough conversations because of the way UR prepared her.
She believes her success may also be a product of the fact that she was overly-involved on campus.
“I was always doing a lot,” Bolling said, “which I think is why I can barely remember my college life. I was doing too much, but because I did so much, I built a lot of relationships.”
She had a strong community surrounding her and many people to turn to when she needed help or to talk.
McGowen believes that several factors about UR’s education may have led to Bolling’s success, one being the true value of a liberal arts education. While studying their specific major, students like Bolling, VanValkenburg and McClellan were also learning about a range of topics like economics or philosophy that could’ve been useful to them down the road in writing legislation. UR gave them the great strength of versatility.
The other factor is the networking opportunities that the small but prestigious school offers its most ambitious students. “If you really have that desire,” McGowen said, “you can get around a lot of really important people.”
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