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The Access to Success (A2S) blog

Inside the hearts & minds of NYC College Advisers

Self-Advocacy: The Art of Asking for Help

by KristenMulvena
10/03/16 Bookmark

Kristen Mulvena is a Queens native and first year graduate student at Stony Brook pursuing her Master of Social Work with a specialization in Higher Education. This past May, Kristen graduated from Binghamton University Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. In August, she completed her second summer as an intern at Graduate NYC. Kristen is passionate about the role of mental health in college persistence and success and hopes to someday work in a university counseling center. When she’s not interning, Kristen enjoys singing, theater, reading, and trying new food.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re one of many students across the country who just began college this fall; congratulations! You probably have a lot of feelings about college – one of them may be that you’re overwhelmed. That’s completely normal. College is very different from high school – it is a new level of independence most college freshmen have never had before. There’s no one around telling you what to do or when to do it – you decide when to eat, do your homework, do laundry; you decide everything. It was new and scary for me once, too. College can feel like a sink-or-swim environment, as if you’re just a number, lost in a sea of fellow students, papers, exams, and deadlines. But you don’t have to drown. Every college student encounters a roadblock during his or her journey, and most have simple, accessible solutions. Getting the help you need is called self-advocacy, which is defined as “the action of representing oneself or one’s views or interests.” This is a crucial skill that’s key to being successful in college and life that isn’t taught in the classroom. Don’t ever be afraid to ask for help. You don’t know all the answers (nor do you need to) and no one will fault you for this. Most of the solutions you need are right there on your campus, you just need to know where to find them. I recognize that self-advocacy is not the easiest thing for anyone to do, especially in college. Developing this skill is a process; this handbook is full of great tips and ways to perfect it. I’m going to focus on where to go for help. The simple act of seeking out assistance for yourself is the first step to self-advocating and successfully solving one of life’s challenges.

Resident Assistants: An on-campus student’s first line of defense

  • Whether you’re very close or barely say hello, it is your RA’s job to help connect students to the services they need. They are trained to know the ins and outs of your campus and where to go for any and every issue.
  • If your RA doesn’t have the answer you need, chances are they’ll connect you with someone who does.
  • If speaking to college officials makes you nervous, your Resident Assistant, or RA, is a great person to practice on! They are students, just like you.

Health and Mental Health Issues

  • Know where your campus health services are located.
  • Know if you’re on your parents insurance or university insurance and carry an insurance card.
  • If you’re feeling sick go to health services – this way you miss less class in the long run and sometimes you can receive a note to submit to your professor(s) if you missed class for an appointment.
  • Your mental health is just as important as your physical health and equally crucial to your success.
  • Even if you don’t have a mental illness but you’re feeling stressed or anxious, make an appointment. You can be given coping skills and strategies to better handle the unique stressors of college.

Financial Issues

  • During your first week of school locate the bursar or financial aid office.
  • Keep track of payment dates! Typically colleges send out one reminder email telling you when tuition is due, but other than that you won’t realize you forgot until holds have been put on your account and you can’t register for classes for the next semester.
  • If you’re struggling with food insecurity or any issues related to finances or personal matters, the office of the dean of students may be able to help you.  Many have or are connected to food pantries and other local services. Become familiar with the variety of services they provide.

Academic Issues

  • Your three biggest allies are your professor, your teaching assistant (TA), and tutoring services.
  • Go to your professors office hours or the TA’s office hours. They hold them for a reason. Know where they are and when they happen. If they don’t fit your schedule, send an email. Most professors and TAs are willing to accommodate students who ask.
  • If you don’t get a reply within 24 hours (on a business day), the standard for professional etiquette, don’t be afraid to send a follow up email. You are not being annoying – you’re entitled to a response in a timely manner (this goes for any professional).
  • Check your syllabus constantly. Print it out, carry it with you, keep it somewhere you see it a lot. When in doubt, check the syllabus first. Professors hate getting questions about information that’s on the syllabus.
  • If you need help that goes beyond one office hours session, check out what kind of tutoring services your school has (your professor or RA may know) – they are usually free and you can get more consistent help through the semester, especially if you sign up early. 
  • The most important part of solving academic issues is go as soon as you notice a problem. Don’t wait until right before an exam/quiz or after you’ve done poorly on one. The quicker you get help, the less likely the issue is to impact your grade.
  • Know where your academic advising office is. Advisers will be crucial to you when you’re not sure about a major, when you don’t know what classes to take, or when you’re having a registration issue. These offices tend to be very crowded during registration and other high stress periods – try to make an appointment as soon as you can, not solely when everyone else is also seeking help.
  • If you have major academic or personal issues and you decide you need to withdraw from school, you need to visit your office of the dean of students as soon as possible. Past a certain point in the semester withdrawing requires paperwork. If you do not go through this process and simply stop going to class, your professors will fail you. This can make returning to school or transferring to another institution very difficult. 

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