The pattern I saw was that Group A students from middle class to upper class homes and with college-educated parents often had families who were actively involved in their university experience. These parents were able to indicate to their children how to best communicate with the professor, how to access campus resources, share valuable course selection information and more. At the same time, these parents seemed to consistently keep their helicopter in possible flight mode. In contrast, Group B encompassing first generation students, some international students, students from lower income families and students of color were more likely to be left to address their issues on their own. Day to day challenges that occur on campus, subtle slights and other factors were often left unresolved. From an institutional point of view, the expectation is that at the university level all students should be able to speak up for themselves. The question is what happens when Group B students don’t feel empowered enough to speak up, or they come from a cultural background that has taught them not to question adults in positions of power or they just don't know what to say? In my experience, this group rarely had parents ready and waiting to power up that helicopter.
Ideally, we’d like to believe that all students are treated equal, but reality has taught me something different. Faculty and campus administrators are first and foremost human and therefore arrive with a wide range or a limited range of experience working with diverse communities. Their levels of intercultural experience, degree of pre-conceived notions, stereotypes and bias can also vary.
Some teachers and administrators know who they can slight or speak to with less respect. They look at those perceived as vulnerable, those who easily fit into a specific stereotype, those on scholarships who are less likely to feel they can complain and then proceed. It doesn’t matter if institutions implement complaint programs or other institutional norms to support student learners if these offices are not directly managed by empathetic, objective, trustworthy and humane individuals to oversee the process. The immediate reaction for many students when left without an advocate is to go inwards. Embarrassed, shocked and disoriented the next step may be to socially withdraw or physically leave the institution.
To mentor and advocate for students is often to be viewed as a faculty or administrative enemy. In reality, it is quite the opposite. Advocating for students is the first needed step to teach them how to objectively address an issue and to empower them as future leaders and problem solvers. Despite what may have occurred between two students, or a student and administrator there is always the chance that students made an error in their actions or response. This can never be addressed until open discussion is implemented.
Having taught in the university and K-12 level prior to moving into administration, in reality I am very empathetic to the faculty/administration point of view. At the same time, years later when returning to campus as an instructor or administrator, I approached from the memory and perspective of a first-generation student of color clearly remembering some of the stereotypes and not so subtle bias that I once confronted. I also remembered in those moments wanting to look to the horizon and listen hopefully for the roar of an incoming chopper. But there was no helicopter parent for me, and I represented myself through thick and thin. It was never that my parents did not want to help, but more often they had no awareness of what to do and how to best do it. However, to say I did not envy those students with active helicopter parents would not be to speak the truth.
Years later, I have come to understand that advocacy is not merely about defending students, nor is it about “having students speak to you because you believe all of their ‘BS’,” as someone once told me. Advocacy is about letting students know that they matter. It involves empowering students to address an issue in the best manner that will ultimately lead toward a satisfying resolution. I have become an unapologetic and deeply committed student advocate as I now realize that advocacy is about empathy. It is about helping students learn that silence and merely walking away is not always a sustainable solution. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” In addition, we must remember if the objective is to get students to speak for themselves then as education leaders we must also hear what they have to say and implement change when necessary. When students witness a genuine response to their issues and become empowered, they may no longer want or look for helicopters to land on campus.