College Students and Strategic Self-Advocacy with Dr. Elena Simpkins

Interviewed/Written by Dr. Clyde Barnett, III

January 20, 2020

In uncertain times, advocating for our needs has become even more critical. Unfortunately, many people, especially college students, are unsure where to begin self-advocacy, fearing potential risks or abiding by perceived limitations. As I have found myself in several situations where advocating for my needs positioned me to accomplish my goals better, I took account of the number of times I was encouraged to stand down and grin and bear it. When advising, I wondered if my students may have felt similarly or told to do the same. My reflections have pushed me to impart the ways I have advocated for myself to college students as much as possible. On Tuesday, November 17th, 2020, I sat down with Tristan and Mike from the College Access Point to talk about strategic self-advocacy. You can view the episode here.

I am not alone in my strategic self-advocacy efforts. As an educator, several individuals have been examples of approaching self-advocacy as I navigated college and presently in my work and research. Without advocacy, there are many things that I would not have been able to do. Considering this, I decided to reach out to my network of peers who work directly with college students. I recently sat down (read: logged on to Zoom) with Dr. Elena Simpkins, who serves as the associate director of student-athlete support services at Eastern Michigan University, to garner her perspective. Dr. Elena holds a Ph.D. in sports management from the University of Michigan and serves as a coach for the Girls on the Run Commission, a nonprofit girls empowerment program. Dr. Elena is intentional about her strategic self-advocacy to challenge traditional norms and ideologies that have historically and systemically excluded Black women. For instance, our conversation included revisiting her upbringing around predominantly white people and running being a “White people thing.” Dr. Elena’s involvement with Girls on the Run challenged her narrow perspective, resulting in completing a 5K.

As a justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) scholar, Dr. Elena’s self-advocacy has led to the alignment of her professional and personal passions. Here I present the first installment of the college students and the strategic self-advocacy series. Like Dr. Elena, I am hopeful that college students can internalize and employ these considerations to “get the help they are owed” and achieve their goals.

What is self-advocacy?

I think self-advocacy is very much a set of skills that you learn or are taught not to use in order to empower yourself in various situations. So, it’s not just in one space. But I do think they are skills, and they are learned. I don’t think a lot of people are just born self-advocates. I think we have some idea of advocacy growing up as children, when someone’s like, “Oh, you should go hug so-and-so,” and kids are like, “Nah, I don’t really want to do that,” but then the parent pushes them. So, then you unlearn how to be an advocate for yourself because you get told not to do it.

Why is self-advocacy important for college students and recent graduates?

For college students, I would say self-advocacy is important because college is really the one place that a lot of students are forging their own path. So, you don’t really have as much input from your parents. You don’t really have as much input from your counselor. You choose your own schedule. You get a lot of say in what your major is going to be, what classes you’re going to take surrounding that, what classes you’re going to take for electives. So, it’s important to be able to say what direction you want to go in or don’t go in, what your interests are, what they aren’t. And for recent graduates, I think it’s a similar way. At that point, most people are like, “You’re grown.” And so, they leave you to fend for yourself. And if you don’t really have those skills already to advocate, then it makes navigating that environment, whether you’re going to grad school or going into a career, a little bit more difficult to navigate.

How and where should we be strategic in our self-advocacy?

I think you should everywhere, and this is coming from someone who’s struggled with self-advocacy. Right? I think one of the more important ways that I have learned how to advocate for myself are in spaces in which they seem nonconsequential. Right? So, if it’s like I’m in a meeting, I have a meeting that’s supposed to end at 2:00 and a meeting that starts at 3:00. My meeting that’s supposed to end at 2:00 goes over a little because the other person has a lot more to say than we had time. Right? And being able to say to them, “I really appreciate this, but I really have another meeting to get to.” Right? “I need to step off and get to this other meeting.” You just advocated for yourself. You order something, and it’s wrong. And I know people use this example a lot, but most times, people just eat it. But it’s not what you wanted. Right? And you’re paying. So, you should be able to say, “This is not the correct thing,” and get it rectified. I feel like being able to do it in those spaces makes it a little easier to do in other spaces. So, if you’re in school and you don’t understand a question or understand an assignment, asking for clarity for yourself is the way to advocate for yourself, saying, “I need more time on this assignment. I have a lot of things happening right now in my life, and I won’t be able to do this,” is a way to advocate for yourself. Turning on your out of office, saying that I’m not going to be available for email right now, is a way to self-advocate. I just added to my email at the bottom that says, “I prioritize wellbeing. If you get this email and you are away from your desk or stepping away from email, don’t respond to me.” “But also know that I’m going to do the same thing. So, if you email me and I don’t respond right away, know that it might be because I’ve stepped away for a moment. So, don’t expect an email right away.” And one last, I think being able to say you don’t know something because in dealing with the students I work with, I think a lot of the time I’ll say things and they’ll be like, “Oh, okay.” And I’ll be like, “All right. So, what did I say? Can you explain it back to me?” And they’ll be like, “Nah, I don’t get it.” Well, don’t say okay to me. I’m trying to help. You have to be able to say, “I don’t know how to do this, it does not make sense,” because then that way, you can get the help that you are owed. I don’t care what anybody says, your professors, your instructors. They are supposed to be there to teach and help you. So, part of their job is to do that. Therefore, if you don’t tell them something they don’t know, it’s going to be way more difficult for you to get that.

Sometimes self-advocacy is viewed as being self-centered or boastful. How would you suggest that college students consider and deal with this?

Laugh in their face. That’s not for real. But seriously, I think a lot of times students, particularly students of color, and more specifically black students, are made to feel like they should just be appreciative or thankful or whatever for things that come their way, instead of being an active participant in the things that come their way. And I think, when thinking about what you want out of your college experience…when we have a college experience, we join organizations. We do all of these things. And for some of that, that brings accolades. That brings appreciation from people. And you deserve that. You did the work. You wrote the paper. You organized the whatever. People deserve to know that. And a lot of the ways that people will know that is if you tell them. For Black people, all of the work that we do doesn’t get noticed by other people, because they aren’t looking for it. They aren’t checking for it. They don’t care. They feel like, “Oh, it’s just happening over there, so it doesn’t matter.” But if I have crafted an experience for myself that allows me to have all of these transferable skills or has allowed me to be recognized in this way, I should be able to say to people that I have done X, Y, and Z, because I did X, Y, and Z. That didn’t just fall from the sky. I put forth that effort. I did copious amounts of readings and spent hours and hours at a Starbucks or in the library or whatever to get a finished product. So, I should be able to say that I did something. Saying that I did something is not the same as being boastful. I mean, if I can gas up other people, I should be able to gas up myself. If a friend of mine did the same thing and I’m excited for them, I should have the same energy for myself.

Speaking up for yourself can have consequences. What suggestions do you have for college students navigating these challenges and consequences?

Not to be deterred. Because I know that as older adults a lot of us have a very hard time with our own self-advocacy. And seeing it in younger people is difficult for us, because we’re like, “Well, I wasn’t like that when I was younger.” I think it’s like an envy, a jealousy. “I didn’t have it in me to do that, so how come you get to walk around and be self-assured and be able to advocate for yourself when I couldn’t?” And that’s on the adults. That’s not on college students. You still deserve to have whatever voice you want to have. So, you should be able to say, “I don’t want this. I do want this. I don’t agree, or I do agree,” and know that everyone’s not going to support that. But find those adults that do, because there are a lot of them. I’m not going to say a lot of them. There are some that do. And there are some that just need to learn how. And if you have the patience and want to help them work through that, you are a saint. And if not, don’t burden yourself with that. But 100% don’t ever feel bad because someone else has a problem with your voice.

How can self-advocacy go wrong?

I think when you’re still trying to figure out how to advocate for yourself, you could have your foot on the gas a little too much. Sometimes you can just let things go. Sometimes things don’t need a big to-do. You could just be like, “All right. That just wasn’t for me.” Or, “That person just wasn’t for me,” or whatever. But sometimes I think people can just be a little overzealous when trying to learn and navigate figuring out how to advocate for yourself. Because if it’s something that you’re not used to doing, it takes time to figure out how and when to do it.

What should college students avoid when advocating for themselves?

Now, this is also for adults, but I think you grow up knowing what you know. And it’s like, I read yesterday, Brittney Cooper, the Eloquent Rage author, talking about emails. Her frustration was students not sending emails, quote/unquote, properly. Thinking about the fact that, and I’ve expressed this before, I work with students who don’t know how to write an email like that, because for them that’s not something they were taught. Our generation, we were taught, because we experienced not having email to having email. So, someone came up with the system on how you’re supposed to send an email. We were taught how to do that. Generation Z, they weren’t. They just have emails, and it’s on their phone no matter what. They get a phone, and there’s email on it, but no one has said to them, “This is how you do it.” I have a friend who has a daughter, and they went somewhere, and her daughter stood in front of the door waiting for it to open, and it didn’t open. And she didn’t know how to get in, because she just was not used to going to places that did not have automatic doors. So, I think sometimes students forget that your professors and older people don’t come from your generation. So, they’re not going to think about things the same way. They’re not going to look at things the same way. And sometimes we need a little help, knowing that this isn’t good for you. And the only way we know that is if you tell us that this isn’t good for you or that this doesn’t work for you or there’s a better way to do it. Because what kept us engaged and what we did worked for us, but now there’s all these new things that most of us begrudgingly are learning how to use or get access to that you do every day. So, when you’re advocating for yourself, remember that there are different experiences that may be generational, that may be environmental, but they’re going to be different experiences that you’ll have to account for when speaking up for yourself.

What does self-advocacy for college students look like in this digital, remote time?

I actually have a really good example from class. We have one student in our class who was a freshman. So, it was really exciting to see that she was able to speak up for herself in that way. We were supposed to have a hybrid class. It was not hybrid because of COVID. There was at risk, and we kept getting emails about positive tests. She was like, “You know what? We’re just going to stay virtual.” Then we got the email that on November 20th, everybody had to leave campus. No matter what your little plans were before, you’ve got to go. She stayed after class and was like, “One, I don’t know if you all saw the email before class started,” because it got sent out 10 minutes before our class even started. And so she was like, “One, I don’t know if you all got the email, so I want to let you know about it. And two, we’re supposed to have assignments due, and I don’t know for how many of my classmates, but I know for me I won’t be able to get that turned in, because I’m going to be traveling. I live on the West Coast. I don’t know if we’re flying or if we’re driving or what, but I now have to rearrange my schedule.” Because of her stopping and saying that, I don’t want to inconvenience this one student who’s been engaged and active and all of this stuff because we have a “set” schedule. So, one, making sure that you are able to say, “Yeah, this doesn’t work. It’s just not going to work. The formatting, the whatever, it’s not working.” I also think, being able to say, and this is probably a much tougher one, but being able to say, “I don’t want to have my camera on today.” And I know as an instructor, that is something that I am vigilant about, and I have foreseen, but I know a lot of people who are like, “You need to have your camera on in class.” For some people, that’s not possible because of where they are, who’s going to be walking around in the background, because parents don’t care. They don’t care that you have school, doing the little whatever. So, ain’t no telling what’s going to be happening in your background. Or also, it could be a difficult day, and you just aren’t trying to be on camera. But whatever the facts are, you should be able to make the decision on when you have your camera on. Another one that I also think is difficult, but I actually would love to be able to work with students on how to work this out better, is how to deal with more difficult professors, because right now there are difficult professors who are so hellbent on deadlines and “I don’t accept late work, and I don’t do this, and I don’t do that,” and I think that’s a really good time to work with other adults who appreciate your ability to advocate for yourself, to relate to the fact that it’s not okay to not accept late work right now, it’s not okay to not know how to use Canvas and only send out stuff by email. That situation it’s hard. A student can’t just say, “This is not okay.” But I think it’s important for them also to be able to reach out to those adults who can be supportive of them in those situations. And step away. We are looking at screens all day, every day. Give yourself space away from your computer, from your phone, which I know is harder, but don’t respond to emails, don’t be on Canvas and all of that stuff constantly. I truly just want more students to be able to feel like they have a say in how they experience college, school, whatever. I think we do such a disservice to students by not teaching them these skills. It’s frustrating. They become adults, and then you are like, “Well, why didn’t you negotiate? Well, why didn’t you ask for this? Well, why didn’t you ask for that, and why didn’t you do this?” And it’s like, when did they learn how to do that? We’ve tried to cut them off at the knees every single time students speak up for themselves.

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Dr. Clyde Barnett, III, is a contributing writer for Living Corporate’s College Access Point. Dr. B works as an educational consultant and an adjunct professor of the Leading for Equity and Justice program at Eastern Michigan University. Dr. Barnett focuses on investigating the possibilities of and barriers to advising through a transformative leadership lens in P-20 education spaces. This investigation occurs through the collection, exploration, and analysis of community voices in both K-12 schools and higher education institutions to inform advising, policy, and practice.

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