Stetson Law launches new Youth Civic Engagement Program

Group photo at College of Law
Participants in Stetson Youth Civic Engagement Program
Many of the student participants in Stetson Law’s new Youth Civic Engagement Program for teenagers between the ages of 15-17 attended a wrap-up ceremony and campus tour at the end of the weeklong course.

“I think that one of the ‘a-ha’ moments that I witnessed really had to do with civil dialogue. Students really believe that when they’re ‘right,’ quote unquote, that they need to get their point across. But when they learned that the point of advocacy and the point of activism is to get other people to understand their position – not to be right, not to win – but to actually help others understand the issues, I think that was a big ‘a-ha’ moment for many of them,” said Law Professor Judith Scully.

She was one of three Stetson Law professors who led the school’s new Youth Civic Engagement Program in July. The weeklong summer experience was designed for Pinellas County teenagers, between the ages of 15-17, considered underrepresented because of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, socio-economic status, or school performance. The goal was to train the teens how to advocate for themselves and others.

Christine Cerniglia
Christine Cerniglia

“I had no idea how engaged they would be, and they took off with it,” said Law Professor Christine Cerniglia. “It was awesome!”

“This young generation is fierce, so how to guide and lead them is a task for us to figure out and keep up with them just to be quite honest,” she added. “They’re inspiring.”

The courses included: Self and Society; Human Rights and Global Citizenship; Technology and Human Rights; Cyberlaw and Human Rights; Mindfulness, Listening and Civil Dialogue; Social Media and Human Rights; Advocacy, Community Building and Protest; 4th Amendment Rights in Public Schools; and Self-Optimization and Individual Goal Setting.

Katie Parish, 15, was excited to learn about deductive reasoning and syllogism, saying that she often used those tools in discourse with others without realizing “that it was an actual thing.” She found the program to be engaging and encouraging.

“It’s just a very interesting, like, in-depth version of civil rights law and advocacy,” Parish said. “It makes advocating seem so much easier than it really looks, right? Because it seems so hard for kids our age, but Professor Scully and Professor Cerniglia and all the different people who were in the program just made it seem so easy.”

Two participants in Stetson Youth Civic Engagement Program, with their family
Eriam and Erin Shepherd were two of the participants in the Youth Civic Engagement Program.

William and Erica Shepherd, whose two daughters participated in the course, said the girls gained confidence and learned that communication is key to understanding themselves and others, so they can work together to solve problems.

“First of all, this program was wonderful,” William Shepherd said. “It really taught them a lot about the concept of human rights and civics and learning how to implement themselves into that program.”

Stetson Law officials recognized that, during the last 20 years, civics education and social action programming have decreased nationally. Students have little, if any, opportunity at the high school level to access the knowledge and tools they need to be advocates. Given Stetson Law’s longstanding expertise in teaching students to think critically and advocate for vulnerable groups, school officials believed creating a program like this would be a valuable contribution to the community.

Judith Scully
Judith Scully

“I taught a course called Advocacy, activism and social change, and it really introduced students to the fact that young people have always been at the forefront of changing public policy, and that they, too –  our 2021 students – can also engage in advocacy that really makes a difference not just locally, not on the state level, not just on the national level, but internationally as well,” Scully said.

“I think our students were really excited about learning about how to harness their power and really participate in our democracy,” she added.

The students learned how to present themselves and do research, as well as the importance of voting and participating in government. One of the key lessons that surprised and delighted participants was the fact that in Florida, at age 16, they can pre-register to vote and get involved.

“The most useful thing I learned this week was Ten Ways to be an Advocate,” said Eriam Shepherd, 16. “I learned I can educate myself and others and that I can possibly in future run for office. And I learned about human rights and how my rights as a human are valid, and I need to know about those things.”

Stetson partnered with Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg to create and launch the new program. More than 40 students applied for the 30 openings, and ultimately 31 students completed the course, which was held virtually this year because of the pandemic. Next year’s class is expected to be held on Stetson’s Gulfport campus.

-Ashley McKnight-Taylor
[email protected]