Skip to main content

Reaching for the Stars and Stripes

UCF’s Lou Frey Institute and faculty are helping develop civic education standards to encourage engaged citizenship.

Fall 2021 By Nicole Dudenhoefer ’17

Serving jury duty. Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Running for public office. Celebrating your 18th birthday by casting your first ballot. Mounting an American flag above your front porch. Making your voice heard at protests and marches. Whether it’s all these actions, a combination of some or something more, what makes an engaged citizen?

The answer — according to experts from UCF’s Lou Frey Institute, an organization dedicated to promoting civic education and action — is rooted in a simple, guiding principle: Engaged citizens are knowledgeable about their country’s history and current events.

“The first important thing is to become knowledgeable about the system in which we live,” says Terri Susan Fine, associate director for the institute and a professor in UCF’s School of Politics, Security and International Affairs. “Knowledge should come before action so that a person knows why they’re acting, what they’re acting about, what the policy options are and what the government response options are before they take action.”

“We have the right as citizens to engage with our leaders, and it’s important that we practice that at the college level and [beyond].”
Stephen Masyada, director of UCF’s Lou Frey Institute

To promote civic education among college students, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently expanded a civics literacy statute. Since 2018, students at public universities in Florida have been required to pass a 100-question civics test or to take an American history or U.S. government course — with some exceptions for those who produced passing scores on exams in relevant high school courses. Now students must complete both requirements.

“We have the right as citizens to engage with our leaders, and it’s important that we practice that at the college level and [beyond],” says Stephen Masyada, director of UCF’s Lou Frey Institute. “It’s important that [students] really take what they’re learning from these requirements, and they do something with it.”

College students are required to demonstrate knowledge of the U.S. Constitution, as well as other founding documents and how they’ve shaped the functions of U.S. institutions, basic principles of the American republic, and an understanding of the impact of landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases.

In a 2021 survey among U.S. adults, 44% could not name all three branches of government, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

“Elections will happen, and policies will be made, with or without an educated populace,” Fine says. “It is better to have an informed and active citizenry to be engaged in these processes to. ensure that the public holds government accountable in a democracy.”

Who is a Citizen?

About 93.3% of those living in the U.S. are either naturalized or native-born citizens, according to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2019. But it’s important to note that the very idea of who is and is not a citizen has changed significantly over time.

“When our Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1776, and then in 1788 when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, the only individuals who were considered citizens by law and tradition were white male property owners of a certain age,” says Masyada. “The Dred Scott v. Sanford Supreme Court case [of 1857 determined] that African Americans could not be citizens, but then of course we have the 14th Amendment [in 1868], which really expanded the concept of citizens by essentially giving citizenship to African American men [and establishing the concept of birthright citizenship]. But it wasn’t until 1924 that Native Americans were actually considered full-fledged U.S. citizens, so who is considered a citizen has changed quite a bit over time.”

Prior to the 14th Amendment, the Naturalization Act of 1790 was established to grant naturalized citizenship to free white men who had lived in America for the past two years. But even after the 14th Amendment, naturalization was prohibited for certain racial and ethnic groups on a systemic level, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The first federal law to target an ethnic group, the act halted Chinese immigration for 10 years, with few exceptions, and made current Chinese residents ineligible for American citizenship.

Today, an estimated 44.9 million foreign-born people live in the United States, representing 13.7% of the total U.S. population, according to the most recent data from the American Community Survey. Approximately 23.2 million foreign-born individuals in the U.S. are naturalized citizens, representing more than half of the foreign-born population in 2019.

But regardless of someone’s citizenship status, it’s important to remember that there are rights guaranteed to anyone living in America — and engaged citizens should respect these rights for all individuals.

While some rights, such as the right to vote, serve on a jury or run for office, are limited to U.S. citizens, neither the original Constitution nor the Bill of Rights make any mention of citizens, Fine says. This means the rights established in those documents, such as the right to protest and due process, are guaranteed to all individuals regardless of citizenship status. The one exception for noncitizens is that they may be deported, such as if they are convicted of a crime.

“For me, the best citizens are those who are engaged with the community around them.”
Stephen Masyada

“What a lot of people don’t realize is there are sort of two concepts of citizenship, and we have to understand how they’re different,” Fine says. “One concept of citizenship relates to engaging within a democratic environment. The other concept of citizenship is a legal classification, differentiating between those who are and are not U.S. citizens. Understanding the difference between those two concepts of citizenship is very important because I think that there are some groups in our country today who look to make distinctions among groups of. individuals on the basis of their citizenship and legal status — as if the ones who are not legally citizens don’t have rights, when in fact the Constitution enshrines those rights.”

Active Civic Engagement

Whether by birthright or naturalization, citizens making the most of their responsibility within America ultimately comes down to each individual. While some choose to run for office, including political science grad Rep. Amber Mariano ’17, who serves District 36 in New Port Richey, and marketing alum Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith ’03, who serves District 49 in Orange County — as well as six other Knights who won their districts in the Florida Legislature in 2020 — most people do not.

More often people prefer to vote for elected officials, which History Professor Scot French says is important to do not just for presidential elections but state and local ones, as well. Voting in elections was considered the most crucial quality of a responsible citizen in a 2018 Pew Research Center survey. While 161 million U.S. citizens voted in the 2020 election — marking the highest turnout ever — political figures and activists often emphasize that voting is just one component of active citizenship.

“There’s more to citizenship than just … voting once a cycle or once a year,” says Masyada. “For me, the best citizens are those who are engaged with the community around them.”

This involvement covers a range of activities, including serving on a community committee, volunteering with a local nonprofit or schools, starting an organization to serve a need in your area, and contacting local officials to address issues, among other actions.

“Engagement tends to swell when there are periods when people believe that their rights are not being protected.”
Terri Susan Fine, associate director of UCF’s Lou Frey Institute

“There’s a formal, legal definition of being a citizen of a state or the nation,” French says. “But there’s also an understanding of citizenship as a feeling of belonging — a sense that we are connected to our fellow citizens, even though we are not related by blood.” What activates citizenship, he says, is a belief in this larger community — real or imagined — and a willingness to contribute to the civic good.

But that feeling of belonging can sometimes be difficult to recognize when stances on political and social issues vary for a multitude of reasons. With the rise of social media, some argue that Americans are more divided than ever, and sometimes disagreements on issues can spark active civic engagement.

“It’s human nature that when things are going well, we tend not to say anything, but when things are not going well, we tend to complain,” Fine says. “When it comes to government, complaints are much more numerous than compliments. People expect certain things to be protected, so engagement tends to swell when there are periods when people believe that their rights are not being protected.”

Masyada also notes that disagreement has long been part of American history — it’s just more widespread now. A recent UCF study even found that disagreements and controversial opinions circulated online twice as fast to twice as many people. In part, the United States’ three-branch government was adopted by the Founding Fathers in recognition that disagreements are inherent to political issues, thus requiring a system of checks and balances so no entity holds too much power to constantly overrule the viewpoints of others. When considering the qualities of a good citizen, 61% of participants recognized respecting the opinion of others who disagree as essential, according to a 2018 Pew Research survey.

“As a nation, we’ve always struggled to really resolve our differences without ramping up the anger at each other,” Masyada says. “But I think at our core though, Americans do want to get along, and we understand that we’re all in this together. We’re so passionate about our beliefs and our visions for what it means to be in America and to be an American that we tend to [clash].”

Higher Education Leads to Higher Civic Engagement

Aside from recent civic requirements, those who obtain a degree in higher education often engage in processes that make them more civically engaged. Individuals who have earned at least a bachelor’s degree tend to vote more often compared with those who have not earned a bachelor’s degree.

Voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election for those with a bachelor’s was 77.9%, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2019, UCF was designated a voter-friendly campus by NASPA, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, because of its initiatives to register and encourage students to vote. Washington Monthly magazine also ranked UCF as the 20th Best Public College for Voting this year.

“It is showing that students are getting more engaged,” Danaë Rivera-Marasco ’15, communications and community outreach coordinator for the Orange County Supervisor of Elections, stated in a 2020 UCF Today story about the university’s high turnout at its voting precinct. “UCF was showing strong turnout this entire election cycle, which was very promising.”

It’s easy to see how a college experience can help people become more civically engaged. From opportunities available to serve in student government roles to volunteering across campus, being involved with extracurricular activities that emphasize service to others can spark a lifelong interest in your community, which Masyada and Fine have emphasized as an important quality of civic engagement.

Course material, such as the government and American history subjects covered in classes required for Florida college graduates, certainly provides insight that can help individuals make informed political decisions. But reading comprehension, critical thinking and analytical writing skills, and exposure to diversity are other tenets of higher education that help foster a capacity to care about the world around us and take action.

“I’ve seen a shift in teaching from not really engaging students to a focus on informing them so they could be more active in the world around them, including politics,” says Yovanna Pineda, associate professor of history. “Higher education provides theoretical academic background and allows teachers and students to develop an understanding of the practical side of subjects. Higher education isn’t just a one-way street (teachers engaging students), it’s a massive interstate of intersecting highways and streets — if you include other actors, such as the state, the administration, and nonstate actors and these intersections propel us to think outside the box.”

Courses such as sociology, psychology and humanities were found to particularly encourage civic gains, according to a 2019 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study. But regardless of disciplines studied, the college journey generally creates habits in good students that translate to those in good citizens.

“There was a study many decades ago that found one of the reasons that students had such a high voter turnout after they were [college] educated, regardless of their major and political inclinations, was because they had to navigate the bureaucracy of securing that education, which gave them the confidence to stay engaged,” Fine says. “If a student can figure out how to get themselves registered for class, find housing, interpret policies on a syllabus, and get financial aid, then they have learned what the rules are and how to navigate them. That then gets transferred to engagement with voting and with government.”

A Center for Civics

Launched in 2002 following a donation of congressional archives, UCF’s Lou Frey Institute is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting civic engagement and education for K-12 students, college students and the Central Florida community. The institute is named for the late Lou Frey Jr., a New Jersey native who served in the U.S. Navy before becoming a lawyer in Florida. In 1961, he began his career in public service and politics as an assistant county solicitor in Orange County, Florida. Frey served Florida constituents in many ways throughout his career, including five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1969 to 1979.

“Congressman Frey was a passionate believer in the importance of civic education in raising up that next generation of participants in civic life,” says Stephen Masyada, director of both the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship (FJCC) and the Lou Frey Institute. “[Frey], along with Sen. Bob Graham, was one of the driving forces in the successful passage of … the Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Civics Education Act in 2010. This helped lead to a partnership with the University of Florida’s Graham Center [for Public Service] and the creation of the [FJCC] to support civic education across the state. [Having the FJCC] housed here at UCF within the Lou Frey Institute, we try to use varied approaches to help students understand what it means to be an engaged citizen.”

Working with statewide partners, some of the institute’s services include assessing civic engagement in Florida, an interactive civic review site dedicated to helping middle schoolers prepare for end-of-year assessments, and implementing a civics program with the Boys & Girls Club of Central Florida. Arguably their most important work relates to supporting teachers’ ability to educate students. These efforts include providing an undergraduate certificate in civics teaching through UCF and K-12 curriculum resources, such as summaries on topics like the significance of Juneteenth and the founding principles of America, with critical thinking activities for students.

“The most important cog in the wheel of civic engagement for what Lou Frey does relates to the teachers,” says Terri Susan Fine, associate director for the Lou Frey Institute. “K-12 teachers are the ones who not only interact with students all during the day but also year over year. Teachers are the most important [factor] in that whole relationship between curriculum, assessment and students. We need good materials for those teachers to use. The better prepared those teachers are to share information with their students, the more likely that they’re going to have an impact.”