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High School Students, State Legislators Mix At Summer Civics Institute

Jun 16, 2019

For some high school students, summer is a time to relax. But for nearly one hundred Florida high school students, it's a time to study civics, thanks to a program from USF St Petersburg and the YMCA. 

The pair partnered to create the Civics Fellows Program, a yearlong fellowship that immerses students in local government and public service.

From June 9 through 15,  the students experienced an intensive Summer Civics Institute in St Petersburg,  where they met Mayor Rick Kriseman, visited St. Pete City Hall, and took a trip to the criminal justice center.

They also had the opportunity to listen to a panel of four Florida legislators.  State Senator Jeff Brandes, Representative Jamie Grant, Representative Chris Latvala, and Representative Wengay Newton shared their thoughts on what it takes to have a successful career in government.

“Being a legislator is a really easy thing to do if you know what your principles are and you’re not afraid to lose,” Grant said, while Newton added, “If you work hard, and you advocate and fight for the people who sent you to office, you’ll be okay." 

“If you’re going to run for office, my advice would be to not care,”  Latvala said. “You’re not going to make friends. You can’t make decisions based on making other people happy.”

“The number one thing you can do is go be successful in a career doing something else,” Brandes said. “The currency you bring to this process is perspective. Go work in some other area. Then when you come back and you still have a desire to serve, you can consider this profession.”

Students in the Summer Civics Institute line up to pose questions to Florida legislators in the USF Student Center Ballroom.
Credit Carrie Pinkard / WUSF Public Media

After hearing the legislator’s advice, students listening in the USFSP Student Center Ballroom lined up to ask questions, ranging from the general like “how do find a community to support you?” to specifics like “how do you feel about home rule?”

When panel moderator Jason Mathis asked the room of 100 students who was considering a career in government or public service, nearly every hand shot up in the air.

Kimmie Balch, a student from Cape Coral, said the Institute opened her eyes to a career she now wants to pursue. Balch said a conversation she had during the group’s trip to the St Petersburg’s criminal justice center helped her decide.

“I spoke with someone who was really interested in juvenile law and it just made me feel like that was what I wanted to do. I always wanted to be a lawyer, I just didn’t know what program I wanted to be in,” Balch said.

Students earn six college credits at USF St Petersburg through the Civics Fellows Program.