Advocacy, Self-Advocacy, and Why Both Matter for BIPOC Students

Featuring expert advice from:

Paul Mitchell

Paul Mitchell, Assistant Professor in the Reynolds School of Journalism and Coordinator of Recruitment and Retention at the University of Nevada, Reno

Paula Umana

Paula Umaña, Director of Institutional Engagement at the Hope Center

"You don't know what you don't know" sounds like just one of those things people say. But, in reality, it's a pretty deep comment: It's impossible to be aware of something you don't know exists. And if you don't know something exists, how are you supposed to get it?

That's what advocacy and self-advocacy are all about.

There may be tons of support. And actually, part of our survey findings is that students do not get the support that they need because they don't know that that support exists at different levels, including for emergencies, including food, or other costs related to college. So the institution may have some assistance in place, but they may not know that students don't know how to navigate [toward them].

–Paula Umana

Advocate for Yourself

Self-advocacy isn't always easy, but it's an important skill. You need to be able to talk to the people in power and convince them to get you what you need to succeed. But no one really teaches people how to do that. Or you may have tried it, and it didn't go as you'd hoped.

For instance, did you ever ask a teacher how to spell a word, and they told you to look it up? And you thought, "How can I look it up if I don't know how to spell it?" The internet has taken away some of that stress—it may know you mean "pterodactyl" if you type in "teradactill." But that teacher made it clear that they weren't willing to help you. They wouldn't even give you a hint. And you likely felt you couldn't say, "No, I actually need your help, please and thank you."

So… what now?

What Is Self-Advocacy?

The University of Wisconsin – Whitewater defines self-advocacy as "understanding your strengths and weaknesses, developing personal goals, standing up for yourself, and making decisions." If you learned anything about self-advocacy, it was probably just the "standing up for yourself" part. Perhaps that even got you in trouble occasionally!

The university clarifies you can't start there. Before speaking up, you need to know who you are, what you need, and how to get it. It would be best if you had clear goals and reasoning in mind. If possible, come in with ideas about collaborating with whomever you're talking to to reach your goals.

Why Does Self-Advocacy Matter?

The goal of self-advocacy is to give you more control over your life. Does it always work? No. But it can often help.

When you get to life outside of high school, schools and many workplaces have people whose sole job is to help you. So you can push back more than you may have been able to before. But those people don't know you need help if you don't engage in self-advocacy.

We won't pretend it's easy. First, you have to put yourself out there and say, "I need help," or, even more challenging, "I feel like you're not helping me."

A lot of students are going to be afraid to talk to faculty. But parents aren't. So if parents can communicate with faculty about what their student is looking for, that can also be helpful as well.

–Paul Mitchell

How to Advocate for Yourself

No two situations are exactly alike, but some general guidelines exist to help you advocate for yourself. Your parents may not support or understand your post-high-school desires. Depending on the situation, they may buy into the idea that the only path to success is a four-year degree, lack understanding about college since they didn't attend, be afraid of costs, or fear losing companionship or household help regarding finances, childcare, and housework.

This is hard. There's no getting around it.

Let's start with how to talk with your family, who are potentially your strongest advocates. You may need to speak with them before considering applying to school to get them on board.

I've been seeing a lot of parents doing the talking for the students, and the student not articulating what they need. So the parent is going on the assumption of what they think their kid wants.

–Paul Mitchell

Mitchell's statements about parental involvement in discussions with schools in the last tip and about their involvement here may seem contradictory. But he's addressing how parents participate in this process. Having them help you as you navigate your way? Not a problem! Them making your decisions for you? Not so great!

The good news is that the number of parents who think the only option is a four-year degree appears to be declining. In 2011, 94% of parents expected their kids to attend college. But in 2022, only 60% of parents felt that four-year college is worth it. So your parents may be more open to your entering the workforce or shorter programs than you think. Regardless, you should enter the conversation with a plan.

Try to build a foundation before talking to your parents about your future. Begin with everyday chitchat to learn more about their pasts and hopes for the future. This could inform how you approach The Big Conversation and give you a new perspective. (You shouldn't let them change your desires. But they may mention things you never considered.)

Then, plan for The Big Conversation. TeensHealth, CollegeOnomics, and alis encourage you to:

1. Go in knowing what you want out of the discussion.

Do you simply want their support? Do you want to make sure you're on the same page? Do you need to discuss money or housing? There is no wrong need; just make sure you know what that need is.

Harvard Business Review says you shouldn't ask for permission. This is your future, not theirs.

The Vector Impact suggests not following much of your parents' career advice. They grew up in a different time.

2. Pick whom to talk to first.

You know your family best. Consider figuring out who'll likely be on your team (or at least willing to listen) and speak to them first. That way, you have a teammate when you talk to anyone who is resistant. This may also boost your confidence or help you figure out how to talk to others.

Note: Your best person to talk to first may not be a family member. That's okay. You know who can support you or brainstorm with you best.

3. Figure out when to have The Big Conversation.

Be sure you have this talk when your parents have the time and mental energy. Bringing it up before they head to work isn't the best idea.

4. Enter with a well-thought-out plan.

Know what you want and why you want it. Think of possible counterarguments and how to address them up front. Written notes may help you organize your thoughts, stay on track, and show you're serious.

5. Bring resources and facts.

Research what you want to do, why you want to do it, and, most importantly, why it's a good idea. Statistics are good, but anecdotes are better. Personal stories aren't evidence but appeal to people mentally and emotionally.

6. Be clear, straightforward, respectful, and enthusiastic.

Make confident statements. "This is my plan" is better than "I was thinking…" because the latter leaves room for argument and makes you seem unsure. Show you're excited about this plan. Respect looks different in each family, so use your lifetime of knowledge for that.

7. Assume positive intent.

Admittedly, some parents and kids have awful relationships, making this impossible. But in many cases, you can assume positive intent—your parents want you to be successful and happy, no matter their reaction. Entering with that thought may make it easier to talk to them, even if they have a response you hadn't hoped for.

Parents may freak out. They may cry or yell. You need to stay calm and rational. If you don't, this could become an argument or seem less like a serious conversation.

8. Be ready to walk away.

If things are going badly or your parents need time to process, find a respectful way to end the conversation with the promise of revisiting it later. Try facilitating the next talk, though your parents may bring it up before you can. Continue to present your side with confidence and hold firm.

Sure, all this is easy to say. But it's another thing to do it. We won't pretend this won't be emotionally or mentally taxing. That's part of why we (and the experts) suggest figuring out the best person to talk to first. You might want extra support and time to practice before approaching the normal decision-makers.

There are cultural, religious, immigration, financial, and other factors to consider. You know what your family is about. Keep those factors in mind when you talk to them. But, again, this is your future.

It's okay to be scared. Your future is immense. But if you plan for this conversation, it may also be bright.

When Do BIPOC Students Need an Advocate?

You may need advocates for information, day-to-day support, or academic success. As one NPR article notes, "It's the lack of information that puts students at a disadvantage." It further says students from historically underserved groups are even more likely to have never been told what to expect in the future.

A lack of information goes further than you may realize. You don't know what you don't know, and you may not have even been told what you should know! (And yes, the whole situation is as confusing as that sentence.)

Some things you may need advocates for include juggling school and life, paying for school, and ensuring your academic needs are met. This may sound like letting others do your hard work, but it's not. Instead, a good advocate should help you learn to acquire and use lifelong skills.

Plus, this is what some people are paid to do!

Below, we'll look at a few things that typically need a combination of self-advocacy and an outside advocate.

Finding Out How to Navigate School as a BIPOC Student

BIPOC students are often even less prepared for life after high school than their white peers. This has nothing to do with their intelligence or willingness. It's about a broken system. So you need to find a person to help you through school.

Your advocate in this situation can be almost anyone in the know at your school. This could be the head of your department, your advisor, or someone in diversity services. Sometimes, another student may be trained in this type of work as part of a diversity team.

The challenge is knowing what questions to ask. In a perfect world, your advisor can handle someone coming in and saying, "I have no idea what I'm doing. Help!" And some advisors can do that! But some may need more guidance. Try to take notes on things stressing you out before meeting with this person, whether those issues are big or small. Include anything race-related in this particular environment, even if your advocate is white. They need to know that. You can then work through all this together.

Getting Help Having Your Basic Needs Met in School

You still have costs, even if you hit the jackpot and get a full ride to your school. As Umana said, about 70% of school costs have nothing to do with school but with your day-to-day life. As BIPOC students are more likely to start at a financial disadvantage, unexpectedly high expenses can be a major reason for dropping out.

Enter your advocate. Most schools have financial aid departments with someone to talk to you about costs. This should involve connecting you with outside help, too. Outside groups may be able to help you get tangible resources, from housing to clothes and food.

In this case, self-advocacy means contacting that office, making an appointment, and bringing in your concerns. The advocate should digest the details, help you find resources, and, if reasonable, advocate for you with the school to keep you in the classroom.

Reaching Your Academic Goals

No matter what type of school you attend, you should have someone there whose primary job is to help you succeed. In a trade school, this could be a head of the school or a teacher. In a college, this is almost always your college advisor.

Your advisor's job is to help you find the right classes, gain entry to them if they're full and you're about to graduate, and get resources if you're struggling. They're usually assigned to you at the beginning of your enrollment and stick with you through graduation. You may even have to meet with them once a semester to plan the next part of your education. But they're always there and paid to help you!

With them, as long as you're clear about your concerns, you shouldn't feel the need to fight for yourself too much. If they're dismissing you, something isn't right. If you're working to succeed, they're supposed to help. But, as you know, not everyone paid to help actually does so—especially if they don't understand what you're dealing with.

People may not realize you can change advisors, particularly at a larger school. Consider getting a new advisor if you meet your advisor and feel like they're not a good fit. Of course, if that person has been actively discriminatory, you may want to make a complaint. But we're not here to guilt trip; that's WAY easier said than done.

How Do I Advocate for Myself and Find Advocates?

There is no magic formula for self-advocacy, which is one of the major steps to finding an advocate. What works with one person in power may not work with another. But some things are relatively universal.

The short version:

  • As the University of Wisconsin stated, figure out who you are, what you need, and how to get it.
  • Schedule a meeting with the person you think can help.
  • Arrive prepared to discuss your questions, concerns, and thoughts as clearly as possible. But don't be afraid to simply say, "I'm overwhelmed, and I don't know why!"
  • Actively listen and participate in the conversation.
  • Find someone else if you don't think this is the right person to help.

In other words, advocating for yourself with others is nearly identical to having The Big Conversation with your family.

Explore more of the BIPOC Student Success Guide


The BIPOC School Experience


Unexpected Challenges for BIPOC Students


Options After High School


BIPOC Student Success Tips


BIPOC Student Advocacy and Self-Advocacy


Going Deeper: Resources Used in This Guide

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