"We have responsibility as citizens to be involved," said Irene Leech, Virginia Tech associate professor who specializes in consumer issues. "The legislation that evolves is only as effective as we make it by our participation."

Leech's courses on Consumer Rights and Consumer Protection come to life in the classroom. Students enrolled in the class track consumer issues going through legislative committees and get a crash course in current events. They also are given a first-hand opportunity to see how government operates as Leech takes them to Richmond to see the general assembly session. Leech has become such a presence there that sometimes students even find themselves being introduced at a hearing.

"Hopefully they see institutions in this country as approachable," Leech said. Her hope for her students is that they will continue to meet their citizen responsibilities as active participants.

Alicia Santilli, Katherine Ratchford, and Gerald Glickman, three Virginia Tech seniors in consumer studies, accompanied Leech to a recent General Assembly session. "It was a great experience," Glickman said. "It really puts it all together. Studying how it all goes down in a classroom and experiencing the process in person makes it all worthwhile."

To those students who may attend a General Assembly session in the future, Glickman advised: "Do your homework. Find what interests you and the views of each representative and why before going to Richmond so you know what's going on once you're there."

Leech is active on many consumer fronts. She is about to begin her second term as president of the Consumer Federation of America (CFA). Based in Washington, D.C., CFA has 300 member groups, representing more than 50 million Americans. A nonprofit organization committed to advocating, educating, and supporting the consumer perspective, CFA and its foundation have an annual budget of about $3.7 million and net assets of about $1.3 million. Recent CFA activities have included streamlining the organizational structure, and research and educational projects for unfounded and grant funded efforts on topics such as bank fees, pay-day loans, "as is" car warranties, energy conservation, Internet scams, food safety, indoor air quality, and playground safety.

Leech also has served as president of the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council since 1997, where she has most recently battled big-business power foes AEP and Dominion Resources on utility deregulation. "We need to speak up on behalf of consumers in regulatory and legislative environments," she stressed. "Those who apply the laws need to hear from us."

Leech also was part of a team honored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2002. The programs that she helped initiate, "Money2000" and "Investing for Your Future," won a USDA Secretary's Honor Award, the most significant the department can bestow in acknowledging outstanding contributions to agriculture, consumers, and service to America. The team received a $1,000 award for its work from the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences. That money is being used by Virginia Tech master's candidate Amber Shahan to conduct her thesis research by conducting a follow-up program evaluation on "Investing for Your Future."

Leech doesn't just speak up on electric issues, but they also are the focus of her research. She is part of a team of Virginia Tech researchers, the Consortium on Energy Restructuring, that has a three-year National Science Foundation research grant on distributed generation. That project supports another graduate student, Adria Woods.

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