10 lessons for graduate student advocates

As a former grad student, Ian Gutierrez understands the struggles that can affect others in that position. Here he explains the 10 best ways you can advocate for better conditions for yourself and future students

September 11 2018
Tips for student advocacy

I was lucky to have as good a graduate school experience as one could have. I had a wonderful adviser, attended an excellent programme, and was fortunate to have received financial support from my university.

Yet, even under the best of circumstances, graduate school is demanding and stressful. Like many other graduate students, I postponed many major milestones of early adult life – children, homeownership and saving for retirement – to pursue a career in research.

I saw graduate students with children struggle to make ends meet. I saw others endure difficulties with mental health that are far too common among graduate students. Finally, for nearly all of us, the spectre of towering student debt loomed in the distance.

I channeled my frustrations about life in graduate school into student activism. I started by representing my department in my university’s graduate student government and eventually served on its executive committee. Then I joined the growing movement to unionise graduate student labour and served on our newly formed union’s first bargaining committee.

Finally, I represented psychology graduate students nationwide as a former chair of the American Psychological Association’s graduate student committee. I advocated for the recognition of students’ labour rights, called for serious action to reduce student debt, and sought to ensure that programmes and universities provided the highest-quality educational experience for their students.

Some efforts were successful, and others fell flat. Through it all, I learned how to be an effective student advocate. Graduate students who wish to create positive student-centered change in their departments and universities can benefit from my experience by keeping in mind these 10 lessons for graduate student advocacy:

1. Don’t fight the institution; work with it

The best way to block your own advocacy efforts is by creating an antagonistic relationship with administrators and policymakers in higher education.

Instead of making demands and shaming and blaming administrators, show them how improving the lives of graduate students improves the institution’s ability to conduct high-quality research and provide the highest-quality undergraduate education.

2. Tie your stories to facts

Personal stories about the challenges that you and your fellow students face can have a powerful impact on administrators.

However, linking those stories to numbers and figures showing that there are systematic problems facing most or all graduate students at your university has an even bigger impact.

3. Be patient, be assertive and keep at it

Advocacy is a marathon, not a sprint. Academia is slow to change, but if you stay committed to your efforts, they will eventually pay off. Just don’t expect results overnight.

4. Build student strength

You might not be able to effect the changes for students you wish to see during your time in school. For that reason, you need to empower students to continue after you have left. Bring up future student leaders and support them.

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5. Find allies

Graduate student advocacy needs support. Professors. Undergraduates. Unions. Politicians. Work with anyone who is willing to help you advance your cause.

6. Prepare for opposition, but anticipate collaboration

That dean, provost, or university president might be your greatest ally. While a protest outside their offices might help you to be heard, a conversation would be a better first step. As the saying goes, you catch more bees with honey than with vinegar.

7. Secure commitments in writing

Under the right circumstances, administrators will promise you the sun and the moon to get you out of their offices. Don’t rely on empty promises. Secure the administration’s commitments in writing.

8. Don’t try to be a hero

Advocacy is always a shared effort. Collaborate with others to get the job done, and when you need to, let them carry the load so you can rest.

9. Keep your priorities straight

Fighting for a cause can be an empowering experience, but don’t let it get in the way of the thing you came to graduate school to do. Make sure that you complete your comprehensive exams, write your dissertation, and get your degree.

10. Keep advocating, even after you graduate

They may not know it yet, but countless high schoolers and undergraduates are counting on you to make graduate education more inclusive affordable, and just. Even if it’s too late for you, it’s not too late for them.

Now more than ever, graduate students need powerful and effective advocates. Build the movement, bring students together, and be the change – but be smart about it.

Read more: Students are best placed to encourage diversity at universities 

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