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Introducing kids to college campuses leads to lifelong learning

Christian Hardigree



Clearwater Fundamental Middle School took 1st place in the Pinellas County Schools MathCounts event Feb. 11. Photo provided.

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What are the sounds you associate with childhood?

For some, it may be a song they remember their parents singing.  Others hear laughter on a playground and are transported back to elementary school recess.

For me, it’s the full-body, reverberating roar of a racecar and the high-pitched whir as the pit crew removes lug nuts during a speedy tire change.

Whenever I hear those sounds, I am immediately sent back to Road Atlanta speedway (now named Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta), where I spent hours as a child wandering the track while my parents worked the races for extra money. Those days started early, ended late and were filled with the energy, power, risk and excitement of battle on the track – as well as naps in the car and the occasional orange creamsicle popsicle and Coca-Cola (in a bottle, of course).

So, as you can imagine, I’m pretty darn excited for my very first Firestone Grand Prix coming up next month, right next to our USF St. Petersburg campus. I’m still hoping someone might let me ride along for a loop around the track (hint, hint to the organizers).

I’ve been thinking a lot about childhood lately, in part because of my child-like excitement for big, loud IndyCars, but also because we’ve hosted several events for K-12 students on our campus recently. Anytime the campus is buzzing with the energy of large groups of young people, I get a little giddy.

We held the Pinellas County MathCounts competition in our University Student Center Feb. 11. We were so excited to have these smart, talented young people on our campus for a day of problem-solving, riddles and puzzles. The T-shirts worn by the participants brought a smile, including one that read, “MATH – the Only Subject that Counts!”

We also hosted the Pinellas County Schools leadership summits with elementary and middle school students at our University Student Center. There were hundreds of kiddos bubbling with excitement, complete with a photo scavenger hunt across the campus! We’re looking forward to the summit for high school students next month which will bring another couple hundred future leaders to visit our campus.

This weekend, the annual St. Petersburg Science Festival and MarineQuest is back in person on our waterfront for the first time since 2018! I hear that more than 25,000 kids and adults are expected to attend, and I can’t wait to check out all the cool experiments and exhibits on our waterfront.

So why am I telling you about all of this? Well, first, it’s because I love interacting with students of any age. But also, as regional chancellor of the USF St. Petersburg campus, I think there is real value to having young people and their families on our campus. We’re living in a time where there’s a lot of myths and misinformation swirling around about the value of higher education. But the bottom line is, a college degree is still one of the smartest investments you can make in your future.

There have been multiple studies that show that the average college graduate has far more earning potential than those with a high school diploma. In fact, a recent report by Northeastern University showed that those with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $27,000 more per year than those with a high school diploma. Over a career, that’s a difference of more than $1 million. Beyond increased lifetime earnings, those who attend college have a longer life expectancy, are significantly more likely to have health insurance provided by their employers and tend to be more involved in their communities.

Being exposed to a college campus at a young age is a valuable learning experience. It helps plant a seed in young people that will hopefully grow into an expectation and a desire to pursue a post-secondary education. It also gives parents the opportunity to make connections with faculty and staff members, so they have people to turn to if they have questions during the college selection process. After recently hosting a group of students from Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, I was moved when a single parent reached out to me to say her son had never considered college, but after visiting the campus, could see himself one day attending. She was over the moon!

Most importantly, it teaches us that college campuses are fun places. Learning is an adventure at any age. We want to instill a passion for discovery and encourage kids to push boundaries. And it doesn’t hurt that USF’s St. Petersburg campus is overlooking a bay filled with dolphins, manatees and pelicans.

Parents, students and community members, I encourage you to spend more time at USF’s St. Petersburg campus. We’re always hosting fun and interesting events. You can check the home page of our website for the most up-to-date listings, or find out by following us on social media (, and If you come in a group, I pre-emptively apologize for leaping out and chatting you up with information about the campus and questions about your visit.

Going forward, I’ll be writing a monthly column for the St. Pete Catalyst. I’m very grateful to the editors of this publication for the opportunity. In this column, I’ll be updating you on the latest news and initiatives from our campus, as well as my thoughts on higher education and USF’s role in our community.

I’d also love to get input from you. What are you interested in knowing more about? Drop me a line at I always love hearing from members of our community.

And I’ll see you at the Grand Prix! I’ll be the one with the USF green and gold pom poms, cheering so loudly that I lose my voice. And if I can find an orange creamsicle, the corners of my mouth might have a bit of an orange tint.

Christian Hardigree is Regional Chancellor of USF St. Petersburg.



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    John Donovan

    February 15, 2023at4:43 pm

    We could also do well introducing them to a Home Depot / Lowes store. In so many ways. Pinellas County schools, I’d guess 8th grade is a place to start with the field trip.

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