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USF St. Petersburg campus and YMCA host Civic Institute to strengthen students’ understanding of government

Meeting with Charlie Justice

Civic fellows meet with Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice during last year's Summer Civics Institute.

For the fourth year, the USF St. Petersburg campus and Florida YMCA are partnering to offer the Civics Fellows Program, an initiative designed to enhance civic education in the state by giving high school students hands-on experiences in government and public service. As part of the program, students from across Florida will participate in a Summer Civics Institute on campus from June 12-18, 2022.

The Civic Fellows Program was created in 2018 by the Florida Legislature as part of a larger initiative to strengthen civic literacy in Florida. It is the first and only such civic education partnership between a university and the YMCA in the nation.

“This program is a really innovative idea that provides experiential learning opportunities for the state’s civic curriculum. It is a model that other states would like to follow,” said Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan, professor of political science at USF’s St. Petersburg campus and coordinator of the Civic Fellows Program. 

In addition to enhancing understanding of how local, state and national government functions, the Civic Fellows Program seeks to increase rates of millennials participating in important societal institutions including volunteering, voting and school events. It also provides for many high school students their first experience on a university campus.

The latter is done through a week-long residential Summer Civics Institute, where high school fellows are immersed in local and county government to learn how these institutions interface with state government.

“We are all obligated to learn more about what is happening in state and local government because these policies affect us and our future,” McLauchlan explained. “You might not be interested in politics, but know that politics is interested in you.” 

Students this year will participate in college-level seminars on civics, history and leadership while also discovering various career paths in government. They will tour and learn about the work taking place at Seminole City Hall, the St. Petersburg Police Department, Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office, the Pinellas County Commission and the 6th Judicial Circuit’s Criminal Justice Center. They also will hear about the major accomplishments and issues from the recent Florida legislative session from a bipartisan group of legislators representing Tampa Bay.

“You got a great sense from people who work in state and local government just how impactful their work is and we learned a lot about internships and other opportunities for getting involved in our government,” said Ria Patel, a high school student from Gainesville who participated in the 2021 Civics Institute.

The summer institute is the capstone and culmination of the year-long Civic Fellows Program. At the end of the program, students are expected to be able to:

  • Research community needs and draft legislation in response to those needs;
  • Develop arguments in support of and in opposition to a variety of solutions and challenges addressed by Florida’s government;
  • Research policy from a range of sources and summarize the findings into a concise summary; and
  • Work with others to bring together diverse points of view and to organize common support for a particular solution in the context of a governmental session.

“I really enjoyed the experience. It was meaningful since you could speak with and spend time with our representatives,” Patel said, who was YMCA’s Youth in Government (YIG) Governor for the 2021-22 academic year. “I just learned a lot about state and local government and how as a youth I can participate.”

The Civic Fellows Program is an expansion of the YMCA’s YIG program. For more than 60 years, YIG has provided civics and character education to middle and high school students with an emphasis on direct experiences and service learning.

“The Civic Fellows Scholarship Program provides an enriching college experience to students from across the state of Florida while also offering the opportunity to expand their knowledge of local, municipal and state government", said Chelsea Coombes, teen initiative manager for the Florida State Alliance of YMCAs. "The students practice leadership and character development while using their voices as leaders, a strong example of the YMCA’s core area of focus – social responsibility."  

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