Interviewed/Written by Dr. Clyde Barnett, III
When scrolling many social media platforms for much of the pandemic, college students have been using their accounts to share insight on their experiences with virtual learning. Some students have shared triumphs in their routines, fewer distractions, and boosted productivity. In contrast, other students have dealt with faculty unfamiliar with technology, a lack of access to support services and accommodations, internet connection issues, and arbitrary policing rules for engagement. Being a college student pre-pandemic was challenging enough, and college life during the pandemic has exacerbated challenges and presented new and nuanced ones.
Now, imagine you attend a STEM-focused, co-op university with two sections that rotate every three (3) months. You spend three months focused on academic coursework and the other three working in a full-time role, gaining the necessary experience to transition into the role full-time after completing your degree. All of this is happening remotely, and there is a lot to consider ensuring college students have all the tools needed to thrive. Further, you may be involved on campus in clubs, organizations, fraternities, and sororities. Your calendar is just as full, only virtually. This is the current reality for many students.
Next in the strategic self-advocacy series is an educator who has spent much of her career leading up to and during the pandemic, supporting her students’ unique needs. Myra Lumpkin is a veteran student affairs professional who currently serves as the director of student life programs at a private co-op university. Myra has helped students thrive with clarity and honesty and believes that being persistent is the key to being a critical self-advocate. Check out the full interview below!
What is self-advocacy?
To me, self-advocacy is being able to present your needs how you best can. How do you best learn? What do you need in the classroom? What do you need in your extracurriculars? What do you need in your living situation? All of these things are multifaceted. Not everyone learns the same. I work at a specialized institution, which means that there’s often no room for mistakes. So there is a need to be very upfront, very concise, and very precise with what you need in order to be able to maintain and learn in this environment.
Why is self-advocacy important for college students and recent graduates?
I would say self-advocacy is important for college students and recent graduates because they are growing into adults. Often, college professionals can handhold a little too long, and when students get out in the real world, they don’t know how to ask for what they need because they expect their employer to notice if they’re struggling or if they need a change. And that is not how the real world works. So, again, students need to communicate what they need and how they need it.
How and where should we be strategic in our self-advocacy?
I would say we need to be strategic in advocating for our health, including our mental health. A lot of our students are so focused on their academics. For some, a sick day is like a glorious thing, while a sick day for others is unheard of. Many students don’t know some of the trigger warnings to tend to their mental health. When I first started as a higher education professional, I had a student who was hell-bent on saying that their Greek chapter didn’t practice any high-risk behaviors because they lived in an alcohol-free house. They followed all the rules. They didn’t have any high-risk behaviors. I asked, “How are the people in your house sleeping?” And so, the way they think about health and risk is a little different. Not sleeping for three or four days in a row is not healthy or conducive to your success as a college student because it impacts the other parts of their lives. When students can take care of themselves as adults, it can spill out positively in other areas. For example, one time, a student had been coughing for three weeks straight but didn’t go to the doctor because their mom didn’t make him a doctor’s appointment. It turns out the student had a serious health concern. Even if the student advocated for themselves to their mother by asking for help as a start or contacting the wellness center on campus, self-advocacy could have made a vast difference three weeks sooner.
Sometimes self-advocacy is viewed as being self-centered or boastful. How would you suggest that college students consider and deal with that?
Let it be what it is! Advocating for yourself can never be boastful if it’s for your actual benefits. Now, if you’re doing it to do it, then that’s another conversation. But if we’re talking about genuine self-advocacy for your learning space, your learning environment, or your health, if people take that as being boastful or self-centered, so be it. It is self-centered for one but also if I’m that whole and well, why am I bothering with you? Why would I be asking for help? If you’re doing things that benefit you and help you grow, and make you feel better and not in a superficial sense, let it be what it is.
Speaking up for yourself can have consequences. What suggestions do you have for college students in navigating those challenges?
When you’re looking for resources, research the limits. Know what the limits are of those resources. Know what it looks like to use them in healthy and productive ways and know what it looks like to abuse them. Know who you need to talk to because sometimes, everybody is not always for everybody working in a college setting. So you have to know that if this counselor, for example, is saying one thing and it doesn’t feel right in your spirit, or it did not sit well with you, know what that comes with. I think it’s also about knowing what stigmas some of this stuff comes with because a lot of times, people don’t want those things following them. In my experience, that’s where some of the negative aspects of advocating for yourself come from. How does that negatively affect you? Your classmates? Your family? Are you worried about things getting back to your professors or getting back to your boss or spouse? What are your actual concerns with any potential fallout. I would just say to students to research as much as they can about both sides of the coin and don’t be afraid to turn a negative into a positive.
What should college students avoid when advocating for themselves?
Avoid asking for the hookup, avoid asking for the easy way out, avoid making up stuff. That is a big one, don’t make up issues because you think it’ll give you an easier path. Don’t overplay issues because you think it’ll give you an easier way. Also, don’t downplay your problems because you don’t want attention. Be genuine in what you need and what you’re asking for because that will determine very quickly how people help you, and how compelled they feel to help you, and how compelled they feel to bring in extra hands that aren’t necessarily a part of the plan but can help.
What does self-advocacy for college students look like during this remote and digital time?
Now I’m going to give you straight-up things, I’ve had to tell students. Don’t think that your classmates are going to report your professor who don’t know how to use his camera. Do it yourself. Don’t think that somebody else is going to email the provost office or whomever that your professor has canceled class three weeks in a row and is supposed to be a live class and now he’s giving you his blackboard work. If dual camera not working and say something. If the microphone not working, say something. Literally at this point, we don’t have people that are walking the halls it might just so happen to hear an incident in the classroom. You have to be your own reporter. On the flip side, if you’re attending the smaller in-person classes but you feel like your professors only teach the students on the computer, say something. If you have to escalate issues, don’t be afraid to do so because you likely aren’t the only person having the issue. In this hybrid model, it is very important that you say something. Be annoying, that would be my advice. Be annoying.
Is there anything else you want to tell me about self-advocacy?
As staff members, we don’t necessarily do an excellent job of advocating for ourselves and our students’ mimic what we do. So, we have to do better. We can’t just advocate for the students. We also have to advocate for ourselves. We have to model the same behavior.
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.