Beyond basketball: VCU stars Melvin Johnson and Mo Alie-Cox intern at the General Assembly

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When they aren’t at practice, class or study hall or leading the Virginia Commonwealth University men’s basketball team to yet another win, Melvin Johnson and Mo Alie-Cox can be found this semester interning at the General Assembly, getting a firsthand look at Virginia’s legislative process.

Johnson and Alie-Cox, both criminal justice majors in the L. Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at VCU, are standout starters for a Rams team that has soared to a 17-5 record and sole possession of first place in the Atlantic 10. The internships appealed to them because they wanted to gain experience and a better understanding of criminal justice policy.

“At the time, I didn’t know too much about it, but I thought it’d be a good experience, given that I’m a criminal justice major and I want to get to know people in the field,” Alie-Cox said. “The other day Coach [Will] Wade came up to us and was like, ‘Do you realize [interning at the General Assembly] is a big-time thing?’ I hadn’t really realized that until now, sitting here in the meetings and seeing all the work being done.”

Wade praised Johnson and Alie-Cox for being excellent student-athletes.

They’ve embraced the student-athlete ideal, and they’re two of the hardest-working guys in our program on and off the court.

“We’re thrilled Mo and Melvin have the opportunity to volunteer at the General Assembly this semester,” he said. “They’ve been terrific examples for the other guys in our program in terms of maximizing the educational resources available to them. They’ve embraced the student-athlete ideal, and they’re two of the hardest-working guys in our program on and off the court. They may be terrific basketball players, but they’re each going to be incredibly successful in something other than basketball.”

A former teammate previously interned at the General Assembly and encouraged Johnson and Alie-Cox to do the same. “It was the stepping stone that he needed to get to where he is today. He’s now working at the Secret Service,” Johnson said. “He made a lot of contacts and networked really well [here], and he suggested that we do it too.”

Both Johnson and Alie-Cox are also interested in pursuing careers with the U.S. Secret Service.

“That’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was little,” Alie-Cox said. “I’d seen it in a movie and always thought it looked interesting. If not that, I’d like to do something with juvenile justice, give back to the community and help the kids.”

Mo Alie-Cox
Mo Alie-Cox

This isn’t the first time Johnson and Alie-Cox have managed to work real-world experience into their hectic schedules. Last summer, Johnson interned with Altria, the Richmond-based parent company of Philip Morris USA, working with the company’s brand integrity office, which, among other efforts, seeks to crack down on the illicit cigarette trade.

“I got the chance to black light counterfeit cigarettes,” Johnson said. “Nowadays, people are trafficking cigarettes, taking them from a low-tax state to a high-tax state, flip them and make a lot of money. [Detecting counterfeit cigarettes with the black light] was like being a detective.”

In the fall, Alie-Cox interned with the law firm McGuireWoods in Richmond, working on a number of public policy issues, such as medical marijuana.

So far, they said, the hardest part of interning at the General Assembly has been following the frequently jargon-filled legislative debates.

“It’s like a different language,” Alie-Cox said. “Once we get a better understanding of the language, we’ll have a better understanding of everything that’s going on.”

Melvin Johnson
Melvin Johnson

“Like he said, the terminology is totally different,” Johnson added. “It can be the simplest sentence, but lawyer-talk makes it sounds so complex.”

The pair has been recognized several times so far by lawmakers, lobbyists and others milling about in the General Assembly building. Johnson, a senior guard known for his bold long-range shooting, is leading VCU in scoring this season at 19 points per game, while Alie-Cox, who is often serenaded by Siegel Center fans with chants of “Mo says no!” after blocked shots, is averaging a career-high 9.6 points per game with 36 blocks.

“Some people [at the General Assembly] are big basketball fans,” Alie-Cox said. “We were just in the elevator, and a lady goes, ‘Oh my God, Mo Alie-Cox!’ I was like, ‘Uh, hi. How you doing?’ It’s cool that they work hard, but they also have time for sports and they know who we are. It’s kind of cool to get recognized.”

Robyn McDougle, Ph.D., associate professor of criminal justice, has taught Johnson and Alie-Cox in several courses and has helped spearhead some of their community outreach efforts. Their internships at the General Assembly, she said, are an excellent opportunity to see the process by which criminal justice policy gets enacted.  

“They’re seeing exactly what we’re talking about in class — juvenile justice reforms, issues associated with courts, fees and fines,” she said. “We talk about that in class, how it might be implemented. Down here, they’re seeing how these bills are turning into law, or at least being debated. And that’s the best thing a faculty member could ever ask for — having our students able to see that process in action.”

They’re seeing exactly what we’re talking about in class — juvenile justice reforms, issues associated with courts, fees and fines.

McDougle added that the internships are part of an array of opportunities VCU students have to take advantage of its location in the state capital.

“They’re getting a great experience, and a lot of our other students are getting this experience at the General Assembly as well. Next Tuesday, you’ll see my entire class down here sitting through a committee session because we’re talking about juvenile justice reforms in class and [the lawmakers] will be considering a bill on juvenile justice.”

She praised Johnson and Alie-Cox, in particular, for volunteering to intern at the General Assembly despite their numerous other time commitments.

“For Mo and Melvin to choose to take the very little bit of free time that they have to volunteer for this experience at the General Assembly, it really shows me that they are looking toward their future, not just in basketball but in the real world, as well,” she said.

The basketball players typically have some free time in the mornings, they said, so they have been interning at the General Assembly several times during the week in between classes and before heading to practice and study hall in the afternoon.

Basketball can threaten to dominate their attention, but Alie-Cox and Johnson have not allowed it to push aside their other passions. So far, Alie-Cox said, the experience at the General Assembly has given them valuable insight and experience into the field of public policy and criminal justice, further widening their perspective and understanding.

“This has sparked my interest and brought me knowledge of the things that are going on in the world and that people really care about,” Alie-Cox said.

Mo Alie-Cox and Melvin Johnson.
Mo Alie-Cox and Melvin Johnson.


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