Self advocacy: One of the most important skills we can teach our students

What is one of the most important skills you can teach your students that will help them succeed in college and in life?

A few years ago, I brought five of my former high school (now college) students together to present at the College Board New England Regional Forum. Our session was called “Strategies, Struggles, and Success,” and it was designed to provide educators with proven strategies to support the urban, low-income student in high school and college.

All of the students who spoke that day were first generation college students, and they faced a multitude of obstacles from stereotype threat to low expectations. The goal of the session was to uncover valuable information that would enable both high schools and colleges to create and implement bridges instead of barriers for these students so that they could succeed in high school and then in higher education, regardless of race, background, or family income.

The students who presented were now attending Harvard, Brown, Northeastern University, Wheelock College, and Boston College, and they had a great deal to say about their experience. They talked about the value of Advanced Placement classes and about the impact attending field trips had for them. They discussed the academic and social experiences that helped them make the transition to college, and the supports that enabled them to adapt to college life. Over and over again, however, it became readily apparent that one of the most important skills necessary for success in college was the ability to self-advocate. And, unfortunately, that was one skill that the students felt they lacked when they went off to higher education.

Sam said he wished he learned to self-advocate sooner. A student at an Ivy League college, Sam first thought he’d study computer engineering. By the middle of his freshman year, however, he was woefully behind. Unfortunately, Sam did not seek out his professors. He did not go to office hours. Instead, Sam wound up on academic suspension/leave to “figure things out.” Sam told us, “Figure things out? I didn’t have self-advocacy in college. How was I supposed to find it when on leave?” Sam returned to school and went on to graduate, but that was mainly because he had strong family support and was able to create a structure for himself that enabled him to succeed.

An overwhelming common theme of these students’ experiences was that in many cases, they didn’t quite feel like they belonged on their college campus. Maybe, they thought, the college actually made a mistake in their acceptance. As urban school kids, they did not want to draw attention to themselves. They wanted to prove they could master college on their own. This often had detrimental effects.

At the end of the session, students had provided a valuable blueprint for self-advocacy that would serve all college students well. Helping students master self-advocacy in high school will go a long way to keeping students in college.

What Educators Can Do to Teach “Self Advocacy”

1.         Explain the term “self advocacy” to students, so that they understand that self-advocacy is speaking up for themselves and making their own decisions. Discuss how self advocacy encompasses the skill of learning how to get information so that students can understand issues that are important and respond intelligently and thoughtfully to them. Explain that self-advocacy is also discovering how to seek out the people who will support first year students in their college life. Make sure students also understand their rights and responsibilities and the role that self-determination will play in their success.

2.         Teach students how to establish an immediate relationship with their teachers in high school so that they will be able to do the same in college. Model this by meeting with each one of your students to go over the student’s progress (or lack thereof). Decide on an “action plan” for success by mapping out what a student needs to succeed. If students do this in high school, they will be more likely to reach out to their professors in college.

3.         Explain the purpose of an Advisor to students. Help students recognize that their Advisor is there for support, and encourage students to cultivate that relationship so that they can become active participants in planning their own success.        

4.         Teach students how to plan for meetings with Advisors or professors by writing out notes and identifying issues of concern. Help students understand that the goal of the meeting will be to create that action plan for success. Role-play to practice communication skills. Help students learn to anticipate different scenarios.  All of these strategies will help raise the level of students’ confidence.

Knowing how to self-advocate will go a long way towards helping students be successful in college and in life. Helping our low-income and/or minority students learn to self-advocate is an invaluable skill that will benefit them the rest of their lives. 

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