Learning to be a #SAadvocate at the 2018 NASPA Hill Days and National Student Affairs Day of Action

Student affairs professionals are expected to be able to do it all—be versatile in skill, knowledgeable about an array of topics, and remain involved in the ongoing development of issues impacting college and university students. While many of us in the field cringe at the thought of policymaking, often associating with that word the term “lobbyist,” the truth is that “advocacy” and policymaking are integral to the work we do. 

Though the differences are subtle, advocacy and lobbying are different (learn more here) and learning how to be an #SAadvocate is key. But what does this mean for us as practitioners? How do we affect positive change for the needs of our students while also representing the universities for which we work? How do we “do it all” and still have time to make a difference?

Recently I was privileged to have been selected to take part in the 2018 NASPA Hill Days in Washington, D.C. Prior to this event, I had little understanding of how to effectively advocate. Was I qualified to speak to my elected officials about laws that impacted higher education? Would writing letters to Members of Congress actually do anything? Additionally, how could I balance that with the responsibility to my university at the time of said advocacy?

During the two-day program, I learned more about how to be an #SAadvocate—a student affairs professional who successfully navigates those realms and ultimately helps progress towards positive change. Representatives from various organizations within student affairs policy and lobbying, NASPA employees, and staff from several offices of Members of Congress shared tips on how to be effective in speaking to lawmakers and developing the potential to make a difference. I was able to ask questions and better understand how my role as not only an employee but an active constituent, impact my ability to be an influencer for change.

As student affairs professionals, we can serve as activists for policies that have the potential to either benefit or disadvantage the students we serve. During Hill Days I learned how my stories of working directly with students impacted by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and immigration could help put into context for lawmakers the significance of creating a permanent path to citizenship for undocumented students. I discovered that sharing with my Congresspeople how the proposed changes to the Higher Education Act could impact me as a practitioner gives a face to a topic that, otherwise, may not feel personal to them while voting behind closed doors. I grasped firsthand and from people doing work on Capitol Hill that it’s important to share your point of view and experiences with lawmakers—while it may not immediately alter their point of view, it plants a seed that might sprout into future change.

I also had the opportunity to meet nearly forty student affairs professionals who shared my passion for policymaking and student success, all of us eager to learn how to best impact change. Together we were given the chance to meet with the offices of nearly sixty Members of Congress on both sides of the political landscape and explain NASPA’s official position on topics such as DACA and immigration, free speech on campuses, Title IX guidance, and the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Three other Hill Days attendees and I were also fortunate enough to be given the chance to sit down with NASPA President Kevin Kruger and NASPA Director of Research and Practice Jill Dunlap to engage with staff from the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights in a meeting on Title IX guidance. We shared how the guidance impacts us directly in our unique roles as student affairs professionals, what it means for our offices and universities as we implement that guidance, and the importance of including trans student rights in the upcoming language. To say I was nervous is an understatement, but Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Development, William Trachman, and his fellow staff were fully engaged with us and what we had to say.

In the end, I was left with the reminder that advocacy comes in many shapes and forms. Student affairs is a field of “many hats” and not everyone has the time or opportunity to go to Capitol Hill to sit down and speak one-on-one with their representatives. What, then, can we do instead? We can get out to vote, encourage our students to vote, or write letters or make phone calls to our representatives. These things make a world of difference, not to mention they model activism for those around us who may also be questioning how to make an impact. 

In today’s political climate, crossing the bipartisan divide is especially pertinent. Whoever your representatives are or whichever party with which they are associated, your voice is still valuable and can make a difference. As practitioners within higher education, lawmakers and Members of Congress need and want, to hear from those of us on the front lines. Today I am a proud #SAadvocate with a passion, and now the tools, for bettering the lives of the students I have the privilege of working with every day.

Jennifer E. Henkle (she/her/hers) is a proud higher education case manager and campus administrator. Jennifer earned her B.S. in Youth, Adult, and Family Services from Purdue University in 2010 and her Masters in Social Work with a focus on Interpersonal Practice in mental health from the University of Michigan in 2013; she is currently licensed as a Certified Social Worker (CSW) in the state of Kentucky. Jennifer's experience includes residence life; community-based victim advocacy; providing support to students facing both personal and academic challenges, including those impacted by food-insecurity, mental health, or those identifying as first-generation college students; offering education, consultation, and outreach to students, faculty, and staff regarding working with students of concern; developing programming and educational modules for college students on a variety of topics; and serving on multiple behavioral intervention and sexual assault response teams at the university level. She is a part of the 2018 NASPA Strategies Mental Health Conference planning committee, newly on the leadership team for the NASPA Wellness and Health Promotion Knowledge Community, involved in various committees within the Higher Education Case Managers Association, and a member of the National Association of Social Workers.