Does Your College Student Know How to Advocate for What She Needs?

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There are a lot of skills that college students need to learn and practice.  Perhaps one of the most essential of those skills is self-advocacy, knowing how to ask for and get the things that you need to be successful.  The term self-advocacy is very often used in the context of students with learning disabilities or learning differences, but it is an important skill for any college student.  The more that your student is able to recognize and ask for what she needs, the better her chances of success.

Students who may have relied on others to advocate for them in the past now have to learn to communicate their needs to others.  They need to learn to speak up for themselves and to be assertive.  Taking responsibility and control is not always an easy thing to accomplish.  As a college parent, you may need to help your student learn this important skill.  Although it may seem easier to do things yourself, and you may feel that you are better able to get the results that you feel are necessary, helping your student to learn how to advocate for himself may be one of the best things that you can do for your college student.

According to the Colorado State University Access Project, there are three important stages or elements to successful self-advocacy:

  • Know Yourself
  • Know What You Need and Want
  • Know How to Get What You Need and Want

This is the time for your student to take control and direction for his own future.  He will need to take responsibility and act on his own behalf as he does some problem solving and seeks the help that he needs to be successful.

Know Yourself

Helping your student learn to advocate for himself begins with helping your student know himself.  This may actually be one of the most difficult elements of the process.  He may want to avoid certain issues, or to assume that he understands.  You may need to help guide your student through a process of examining his strengths, his challenges, and what is going on in his life right now.  As you help your student think about himself, both as a learner and as a person, you may need to call upon your best questioning and listening skills.  Help him consider what he has accomplished and how he has gotten where he is.  Help him think about his successes and his failures.  Who has he relied on, and what does he need help with?  Some of these needs may be obvious, and some may be more subtle. 

Know What You Need and Want

Once your student has made progress getting to know herself better, she will need to think about what that tells her about her needs – and her wants.  This may involve prioritizing and examining values.  Unless your student is clear about what she needs and what is important to her, she will not be able to successfully advocate for those things.  Your student will need to know her rights and her responsibilities.  Your student will need to know what resources are available on campus and how to attain access to those resources.  She may need to take a long term vision to know where she wants to go.  Students who are not clear about what they need to be successful will not be able to work to get it.  It sounds obvious, but it may not be an easy process for your student to turn self-knowledge into the practical knowledge of knowing what is necessary to accomplish important goals.

Know How to Get What You Need and Want

Once your student has determined what he needs and wants, the next step is understanding how to get those things.  Knowing yourself and knowing what you need can only lead to frustration if you do not know how to attain what you need.  Your student may need to get organized and make some important decisions.  He will need to communicate his needs clearly to the right people on campus.  He may need to help do some problem solving to accomplish his clearly articulated goals.  He may need to develop a support network by working with faculty members, his advisor, and/or other professionals on campus.  He will definitely need to use good communication skills to express his needs and assert himself.  He will need to be articulate, assertive, and persistent – all sometimes difficult skills for college students to practice.

The skills of self-advocacy are multilayered and are anything but simple.  Helping your student accomplish the tasks of knowing himself, knowing what he needs, and knowing how to get what he needs, will give him an independence and success both in and after college.  He will be learning important skills and life-long strategies that will help him both now and in his career and personal life. Although it may be difficult, as a parent, to step back and let your student take over advocating for whatever he needs, his accomplishment of these lessons may be some of the most important things he will learn during his college years.  He will graduate not only with a college degree, but as a more self-aware, competent, and confident person.

(Photo: Michael E. Lee)

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