You Are Not to be Tried: Student-Centeredness, Empathy, and Grace for Advocacy
Interviewed/Written by Dr. Clyde Barnett, III
My first reference to university hall directors was Jaleesa (Dawn Lewis) and Walter (Sinbad) from A Different World. As I watched A Different World, coupled with non-stop discussions of later going to college by most adults in my life, I found myself excited about college life possibilities and, more specifically, living on campus. I counted down to the moment I would be moving onto a college campus and experiencing all that my perception of college life had to offer. Recently, I began re-watching the series and reflected on how my perception of college life would change if I were in college during a global pandemic. As a former hall director, I wondered what Jalessa and Walter would be doing for their residents? Considering the pandemic’s impacts on Black communities and Hillman being a historically Black college, what conversations would they have? What would their experiences and the experiences of their students be? Now, an apparent challenge jumps out related to technology, but what other implications would exist for their leadership and students’ well-being?
This reflection prompted me to contact university hall directors who have been on the front lines in higher education for the pandemic’s duration, sitting up close and personal with crisis’ impacts on college students. Grace Sims, a hall director at the University of Michigan, continues to advocate for students as they push back on policies and practices that may not serve them. Grace works consistently to impart student self-advocacy strategies in situations with faculty, administrators, and staff who may forget that this is difficult for everyone. This conversation revealed how student-centeredness, grace, and empathy are necessary components of advocacy when working directly with college students.
What is self-advocacy?
My definition of self-advocacy has been formed during my time as a hall director. I didn’t realize how many college students don’t know how to speak up at the most basic level and say something when they are uncomfortable. It comes up the most when I am in student conduct meetings. Part of our conduct meetings is to make sure that students know their rights and responsibilities. And we send them their rights and responsibilities ahead of the meeting, and we go back through it in the meeting. When I get to the part of the meeting where I am explaining what it means to appeal our decision in the conduct process, that’s when I step in and teach them about what it means to advocate for themselves. I tell students if something doesn’t feel right, it’s because it isn’t right. And if that is true for you, then it is your responsibility to yourself. You owe it to yourself to speak up if something doesn’t feel right. I use conduct meetings as a way to teach students about self-advocacy. In these meetings, if there’s ever a point where you don’t feel comfortable, especially related to the decision that I will make about your future at this university, I need you to advocate for yourself and advocate for what you know and feel is right. Say something. We can discuss it, but I won’t know what you feel unless you can advocate for yourself. People can advocate for you all day, but let’s learn right here, right now, in our freshman year of college, what it means to advocate for yourself. They are always so blown away by how I describe what it means to advocate for themselves against me. And that’s why I go through it because with me being a hall director in a position of power, that’s when they run and face the issues. Part of advocating for yourself will be asking for your rights and responsibilities for even getting into those meetings. And I tell them directly because you are a student, people will try you, there are going to be other adults on this campus who don’t see your value as a student, as an adult, and they will try you. And that’s why I’m teaching you right here today in this conduct meeting, you are not to be tried. So, that’s what self-advocacy means to me. It means speaking up when something doesn’t feel right to you, whether you don’t feel right mentally or physically. If you know what will bother you for the rest of the day, say something.
How and where should we be strategic in our self-advocacy?
Recognizing that first off, what works for you in terms of being confident in your decisions and your words may not work for everybody else, so we have to be strategic about tailoring that delivery and those messages for students. One of the most bizarre yet affirming things that I’ve been told about myself and my role as a hall director is by usually white women and sometimes even white men who tell me, I’m the most confident person that they know, or they ask, “How do I get to be as confident as you?” I’m like, well, confidence in you will look very different from what it does in me. I am this way because I am comfortable being this way. This is how I assert who I am. But for people who have different social identities than me and come from different walks of life than me, self-advocacy might be new for them. Nobody has ever given them the space to voice their discomfort, the space to say that they didn’t like something, the space to express that something might have hurt their feelings, and that’s the kind of space I want to create for students. So, even if you don’t know how to advocate for yourself, I try to be strategic and let residents and RAs (resident advisors) know that you will always have a space to speak with me. You’ll always have a voice with me — not that I can take your voice away in the first place or give you one but with me, but you are going to always have space and opportunity to speak about yourself or if there was somebody else on this campus who made you feel uncomfortable or unsafe or made you feel like you aren’t valued as a person, with me, you are always going to have space and opportunity to practice advocating for yourself and speaking up.
Sometimes being a self-advocate can be considered boastful or self-centered. When you are constantly pushing for your own advocacy, pushing for what you need, sometimes people think that it’s braggadocious or self-centered. What would you say to college students regarding this consideration?
No one is ever going to go harder for you than you can for yourself. That’s immediately what came to my mind because that’s stuff that I instill into my students when it comes to being their own best friend. Again, even when I’m in conduct meetings with students, if I have a student who had an incident involving alcohol and it may not have been a display of who they are at their best selves, I always tell them, you have to be a better best friend to yourself than anybody could ever be. The same thing when it comes to people who feel like, oh, you advocate for yourself too much. Doesn’t that sound crazy? And that’s what I would tell college students. I’m not a mind reader. I can not fix what I don’t know. I tell the students that very often, and I cannot fix what I do not know, so it would be silly to be upset with me about something that I don’t even know you’re upset about. And it’s uncomfortable to tell people you hurt my feelings, or I didn’t like that. Still, I’ve had some uncomfortable conversations with students and RAs in which I’ve had to issue some apologies, or I’ve had to recognize that I caused harm to someone with my words. And that’s what I’m teaching them. I can’t be mad if they come at me and be like, you hurt my feelings or how you said something, though I know it is true, you could have said it in a different way to me. We also are dealing with young people here. And so, no matter how much of an adult they are on paper, when I think about what I was like from ages 16 to 20, which was the age I was in college, I could have probably used some patience and grace. There are growing pains; there are certain things that they don’t need training wheels for and there are other things that are like, this is entirely new, so the way that I’m showing up is because it’s new to me in that I don’t know. I could see professional staff being rubbed the wrong way by however a student chooses to exert whatever advocating for themselves means. And so sometimes that can mean stepping on people’s toes, coming for people’s necks, going above people’s heads. And then also think about how identity can play a role in advocating for yourself as well. So, with me being a Black woman, I know that there are going to be times where I am rubbed the wrong way. There are consequences sometimes for these things, but with college students though, I want to empower them at least and equip them with the tools to advocate for themselves or even how to handle situations in which there might be consequences or teach them about what the pushback might be, what the blowback could be. Setting them up for success and advocating for themselves is also telling them the other side of it.
What does self-advocacy for college students look like during this remote and digital time?
Students are having a hard time communicating with people who they perceive as not understanding them. And so, with Zoom fatigue being a thing, that’s a real thing; it’s something that we as professionals are experiencing. So why do we think that our students are not when they are in classes all day? They talk to the RA on Zoom, talk to the hall director on Zoom when they do something, then I go to office hours on Zoom then meet with friends on Zoom. It’s understanding Zoom fatigue in someone saying, “Hey, listen, I am present for this meeting, but can I please turn my camera off? I am tired of looking at my phone. I’m tired of looking at my laptop. I promise I can hear you, but can I please turn my camera off?” I didn’t make my RAs turn the cameras on for training yesterday and today because I’m like, I’m tired of looking at my computer too, I don’t blame you. If you’re listening, we are good. So, that is one way students can advocate for themselves by just expressing themselves. And I hate for them to have to take on everything to get some grace or accommodations but again, going back to, we can’t fix what we don’t know, I see that being a way. I did a presentation a couple of months ago at a conference about being gracious in the workplace with student staff members because we already need to be doing that in the first place as they’re growing and learning, but it’s a damn pandemic outside! And we want people to be nice to us while we are doing our jobs and messing up sometimes. Why can’t we do the same to our student staff? I would not have finished college if I had to finish in a pandemic at home. I would have been at home with my parents or younger siblings and a sibling above me who also had a child before I went to school. And that would have been my house. And my parents would have required me to help my siblings with their homework. So when would I have had time to do my work? That’s the kind of stuff that many of our students are carrying, but we have to set up environments where our students feel safe and comfortable expressing those needs to advocate for themselves. I mean, it’s funny that their advocacy skills can ebb and flow depending on who they with, but as the hall director, as somebody who lived at home with them, I want them to always know home is the safe place. And with me, you will always have a home in my heart, for sure. Always feel comfortable telling me that, and if you need help telling another adult or professional staff member, come get me; we can talk about it together.
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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.