Just one month before the election, in a key swing state, two former governors turned U.S. Senate candidates sat down to discuss the question: How do we address food security, economic impact, biodiversity management, and climate change in a world with 7 billion people?

This wasn't a debate. It wasn't a media appearance or a campaign stop. It was a chance to put the talking points aside and have a frank discussion about the future of our country, and its role in a global society.

In back-to-back conversations with Govs. George Allen and Tim Kaine, University President Edward L. Ayers posed five questions submitted by Richmond Scholars—170 students who were recruited to the University for their strong academic background in a variety of disciplines. Each candidate was allotted 30 minutes for responses to the questions, with the aim of having a true conversation about the issues.

“It gave us a chance to hear the same questions without the jargon that sometimes permeates a debate,” says Jennifer Cable, director of the Richmond Scholars program. “It’s especially important in a state like ours that’s a swing state. We can hear, in a single dialogue, some genuine answers to questions that we can, in our own time and private ways, compare in the way that best suits us.”

Questions were wide-ranging, including the candidates’ ideas for meeting the basic needs of food, water and housing in Virginia; cultivating the United States’ image abroad and developing cross-cultural experiences; ensuring appropriate health care for citizens of Virginia, and the nation; protecting the respect and rights of diverse populations; and fixing the current legislative gridlock in the Senate.

“The questions submitted by our Richmond Scholars were as diverse and international as our scholars themselves,” says Erik Lampmann, ’14, a Richmond Scholar who served on the selection committee. “It was no accident that we posed a question on the value of inclusivity within an innovative and advanced society. It was no accident that we forced each candidate to discuss their goals to foster cross-cultural communication, international experiences, and to bolster support for a global education.

“Scholars care deeply about these issues. They care deeply about the first question regarding the basic necessities of life and the role of politics to assure those basic capabilities for all. These questions are important to students because they get at the very role of politics in society—that place where, ideally, we all come together, where no one is left behind, and where the common ground is moved, if even barely, forward.”

The forum was the launch of the Sharp Viewpoint Speaker Series, established in honor of Richard L. Sharp, a nationally recognized entrepreneur, to present competing views on topics crucial to our nation and society. The series is also a partnership with the University’s Richmond Scholars program, whose students not only posed questions for the speakers, but also are involved in selecting the speakers they want to bring to campus.

“We’re all becoming more aware of the role young people play, not only as participants in the political process, but as agents capable of shaping political discourse and action,”Lampmann says. “Millennials continue to prove our critics wrong. This is just one example, among many others, of students directing political debate around issues that affect the future they’re going to inherit.”