For many, college is a time to explore the issues they care about. In high school, students tend to be restricted by rigid schedules, and rarely get the opportunity to lend their voices to issues they care about in an academic setting. Most higher education institutions have clubs, classes, and events that support the development of advocacy and policy skills for students. It is important for students to develop skills in advocacy because it allows them to take a stand for the things they believe in socially, professionally, and in their personal lives.
Supporting young people’s exploration of advocacy allows them to be agents of themselves and of the future. In other words, advocacy is a critical part of preparing young people to take on leadership roles. Dr. Torie Weiston Serdan’s book “Critical Mentoring” talks about the importance of framing mentoring in a way that considers race, ethnicity, gender, class, and sexuality when creating programs for youth. “Critical Mentoring” also discusses making this work youth-centric, so that young people can take control of their agency and voices while filling leadership roles in their communities. By actively involving youth in advocacy through critical mentoring practices, we are showing young people that their voices are important.
This summer, I arrived in Washington, D.C. to serve as the Government Relations Intern at MENTOR. I was lucky to have one of my professor’s serve as a mentor during my college career, and understanding the basics of advocacy and having my own agency before coming to D.C. greatly prepared me to enter the world of policy. It can sometimes be hard for college students to know what steps are necessary to advocate but mentors can support students by providing them with resources about the issues that ignite their passions.
Peer mentoring is also a great way for first-year students to learn about advocacy in college. Upperclassmen can be great resources for new students if they have experience in advocacy themselves. For example, if an incoming student wants to join a club that supports one of the issues that concern them, one of the older members can teach them how the group advocates for the issue on campus, to school leadership or even to their member of Congress. Mentoring from professors and other staff is also a great way for students to gain advocacy skills. If a professor and student share a passion about a certain issue, the professor can share how they previously — or still do — advocate for that issue, and by doing so, the professor is helping ensure that a student is prepared to lead advocacy efforts for that issue in the future.
Some of the advice I was given was to thoroughly know the issue I care about and to have some general talking points that convey to others why you care about the issue and why it should concern others too. My mentor also taught me how to reach out to state and federal legislators, which has been an important tool for me. I think if I had come to D.C. without some knowledge of how to advocate for myself and the issues I believe in, my transition into the advocacy realm would have taken longer and I wouldn’t have felt as comfortable leading in this area. Every young person should have the support and training they need to advocate for themselves, for their communities, and for the world.