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Student Life

Self-Advocacy: A Tool for Success

LaTrina A. Rogers, MS Ed.

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The first semester of college can be intimidating to any student for so many reasons. It's often difficult for students to voice their concerns to anyone, but it’s necessary — not just for their adjustment but for their social and academic success.

This voice is known as self-advocacy.

The dictionary defines self-advocacy as “the action of representing oneself or one’s views or interests.” While in the past parents/guardians may have spoken on behalf of their students, college is a soft training ground for students to engage in new skill sets including speaking on their own behalf.

Self-advocacy looks like a student knowing which type of communication works best for their needs (i.e., phone call, email and/or schedule a meeting virtually or in person) and using it to reach out for assistance.

Self-advocacy looks like a student proactively having a conversation with their roommate about boundaries to ensure they both have a good housing experience.

Self-advocacy is a student recognizing they will need tutoring and setting up a session immediately.

Some parents/guardians assume that college staff will provide the same level of support that students received in high school, but this is not the case. At the college level, students are treated as adults (or in the case of my work in Residence Life, beginning adults). This means students are given the expectations, resources and guidelines for life in the classroom and on campus.

Working in higher education has allowed me to see the many sides of self-advocacy. When I worked in Admissions, I was shocked the first time I witnessed a parent completing the admissions application for their student in front of me and answering questions for the student. I developed a tactic to teach the parents/guardians and the student to help the student find their voice. I would address the parent as the student. When the parent would correct me, I’d explain how it’s essential for the student to participate in the process because they are going to school for their own personal future. Parents appreciated the effort to get their student involved.

My experience in Student Housing has been even more interesting as I encounter parents attempting to deal with roommate issues on behalf of their student and calling about repairs needed in a student’s room when the student can simply complete a form requesting the needed repair. Students are receptive when I tell them that I'm going to treat them as they want their parents to treat them…like an adult. I remind them that this treatment means they will have to communicate what's going on.

How can parents/guardians help their student engage in self-advocacy? 

There are a variety of ways to encourage self-advocacy. Here are a few based on my experience in higher education. While it's best to start this process early, the transition from high school to college/university or another post-secondary option is also a perfect time!

Support Your Student in Becoming Self-Aware

A student must be aware of their needs. A conversation with a student about their needs is the foundation of self-advocacy. A student can only speak for themselves if they know why they are speaking.

Self-awareness is empowering. When a person acknowledges a challenge, they can become aware of how to overcome it with the resources available.

Communicate With Your Student

Students need to know their parents/guardians believe they are capable. Communication can dispel any doubts they have about not being capable of engaging in college life.

While the student is still learning, communicating with them about speaking for themselves and using their resources is important.

Complete the Admissions Process Together

For decades some parents/guardians have done all the paperwork, engaging with college officials, and even reading the emails on the student’s college email account. When a parent does everything for their student it can send the message that they don’t believe the student is capable.

Participating in this process will give a sense of ownership and allow the student to see what is at stake when it comes to cost and time investment. Also, when the semester begins, the college/university will contact the student about most issues and it will be a great feeling when they are familiar with what they’re being asked to address. They may still need help but it’s much better to have a level of familiarity rather than a student saying, “I don’t know, let me call my parent/guardian.”

Become Background Support

You’re still needed! You can help teach your student how to navigate their new environment.

Instead of calling the college/university on your student's behalf, encourage your student to contact the proper offices/staff themselves. College staff and faculty understand the desire of parents/guardians to know what is going on but the student is the key contact person and the final decision on anything belongs to the student.

Your guidance in the background will be empowering to your student because it shows you support them and trust them to do what is necessary.

Encourage Use of Campus Resources

While it can be easier for a parent to set up the use of resources for a student, it’s not the best solution for the student. Using campus resources is a great opportunity for a student to engage in self-advocacy and learn what support is available for them on campus.

A student who learns about and uses campus resources is more likely to be successful in their higher education journey. Encourage your student to use the resources and follow through when setting up appointments — this will boost the confidence they need to pursue anything needed for their success.

It can be scary to observe the growing process for your student. It can feel as if they no longer need you. But that is far from the truth. Teaching your student self-advocacy is one of the most beneficial lessons a student can learn. Using our voices allows us to receive assistance, create healthy boundaries and share our experiences to create a teachable moment for others as well as for ourselves.

Parents/guardians, allow me to give you peace of mind. You will always be needed by your student. The need may change but they will call on you for support and advice. Give them the most powerful tool of success…their voice.

A note for parents/guardians of students with an Individualized Education Program (I.E.P.) in high school: Students are expected to provide the college/university with information and documentation needed for their success. The college/university cannot interact based on assumptions about a student. An I.E.P. from a student’s last attended high school or college/university will not be sent automatically by the institution. It is the student's responsibility to complete all the forms required to send the information. Self-advocacy in this situation can be a tool to create a foundation of success for a student’s academic career.

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LaTrina A. Rogers, MS Ed. (she/her/hers) is Director of Residential Life at Ranken Technical College in St. Louis. She holds a master's in College Student Personnel Administration from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and has over 15 years of experience in student affairs across a number of functional areas including admissions and degree completion programs as well as residence life. LaTrina is The Dorm Mom — connect with her on Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest and @thedormmom on Instagram and Twitter!
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