Historically Black colleges and universities have produced leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., former U.S. Representative John Lewis, and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, but the political makeup of their students, particularly how they form their political opinions and values, has not often been explored.

A new University of Central Florida College of Community Innovation and Education project aims to change that with a recent, more than $120,000 award from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

The project will focus on studying culturally relevant messaging and political socialization of historically Black college and university students and how those factors influence political interest and participation.

Political socialization refers to the values and political opinions instilled in people as a result of the people they are around and their social environment.

Amanda Wilkerson
Amanda Wilkerson, an assistant professor in UCF’s Department of Educational Leadership and Higher Education, is leading the NSF-funded project.

“When people think about Black youth and political socialization, they tend to think about voting in partisan elections,” says Amanda Wilkerson ’16, an assistant professor in UCF’s Department of Educational Leadership and Higher Education who is leading the project. “But what is going to convince someone to be engaged in the topic of their interest that may have nothing to do with electing a president, governor or senator? That’s just as important because socialization involves beliefs, values, attitudes, and that’s more than just voting. And that’s what I want to get to.”

Even the choice of school a student attends can have an impact on their politics, Wilkerson says.

“What HBCUs generally do very well is develop students no matter what skill set they come in with or what their background is,” she says. “They try to really support those students.”

Wilkerson says her own experiences attending a historically Black university inspired her to look more into political socialization at these institutions.

“If you’ve ever gone to an HBCU and have seen how they’ve run student campaigns, it will amaze you,” Wilkerson says. “It is a microcosm of the real world with billboards, flyers and the messaging that they developed that speaks to the students’ interests.”

Wilkerson will work with Rebecca Entress, a doctoral candidate in the College of Community Innovation and Education, on the study. They will conduct interviews and surveys with campus leaders at two HBCU campuses in the Southeast. Their research will assess students’ political attitudes, the political communication channels they use, and how political issues are identified by students and framed in the messaging they receive.

“I think this work is important because there’s not a lot of knowledge about it in the field, and I think we’re going to be able to illuminate this area of higher education,” Wilkerson says. “And the connection for me personally is that I get to learn more about a population that I’m deeply connected to and have a passion for.”

Wilkerson received her doctorate of education in higher education and policy studies from UCF and joined UCF’s Department of Educational Leadership and Higher Education, part of the College of Community Innovation and Education, in 2019.