Gradvocacy: The Delicate Work of Multiple Roles

Student affairs graduate assistants (GAs) are in the midst of the social justice movements taking place in higher education. While high-profile events have transpired at the University of Missouri, University of Virginia, and many others, all institutions are addressing issues of history, unrest, free speech, activism, critique, and accountability from students and the larger society.  

While recent campus events have been well publicized, activism on college campuses is not a new phenomenon and has included rallies related to women’s suffrage (1908), ROTC protests (1930s), and protests against inhuman workplace conditions in coal mines and the textiles industry in the early 1900s. As early as the 1920s, student affairs administrators were advocating for students’ civil rights. The 1940s saw returning soldiers protest and demand greater control over their collegiate experience, and the 1960s were framed by numerous demonstrations for civil rights and rights for many underrepresented groups. The Higher Education Research Institute of UCLA reported that student political and civic engagement is at the highest levels since the 1960s and that one in 10 incoming students expect to participate in some method of activism in college. In a Chronicle of Higher Education article, Angus Johnson stated that activism and campus protests are now part of a central experience for college students.  

The graduate assistant (GA) role in student affairs was created to allow experience-based learning opportunities for students entering the profession. As such, graduate students are the frontline service providers on many college campuses. Achieving balance is often difficult and socialization issues are common as they progress from graduate assistant to professional. Graduate assistants who function as mentors, supervisors, advisors, and managers to others often experience role conflict, role ambiguity, role incongruence, and role strain. In supervising undergraduates close to their own age, how do GAs advocate for their students while also caring for themselves?  

One area in which graduate assistants can experience role and values conflict is in their work as social justice advocates—or gradvocates. While Ellen Broido’s research has identified the stages of social justice development as awareness, engagement, and commitment, engagement may be the most salient of these phases for graduate students who are emerging student affairs professionals. Engaging in social justice work and supporting students who are active in social justice activities on a college campus while also being a university employee is difficult. GAs are also being asked to engage such efforts while simultaneously navigating their own experiences, including changes in their social identities, as they learn and understand more about their own psychosocial and cognitive development. Students, supervisors/mentors, and peers can all minimize role conflict for student affairs GAs with responsibilities related to student activities and organizations.


Gradvocates are often the primary contact for many undergraduate students, student leaders, and student organizations. As those individuals and groups look to engage around issues of speech, (in)justice, access, and equity, they may turn to GAs to provide support and guidance. However, being supportive of these undergraduate students is easier said than done. Providing effective support is particularly complex for student activities and student organization GAs who may work with organizations that have competing or conflicting interests. As GAs show support for one organization, they can potentially alienate other organizations. 

To advocate, GAs must be approachable and accessible. Mahin Sandoval-Chavez, a GA from the University of Denver, said that during her interactions with students around social justice and controversial issues she sees her role as being “to make sure [students] were aware that our jobs were to support the students no matter their beliefs.” GAs must understand the need to balance their own perspectives with the needs of students. Columbia College GA Allison Maldonado-Ruiz said, “Being in student affairs, I am an educator first. … There have been times where my personal beliefs about what is going on in the world have had to take a backseat to my role on campus.” But how do GAs balance the competing interests of their students? Sandoval-Chavez cautioned: “Some students that may not have the same beliefs have become withdrawn and sometimes lose that perception that the staff are open to hear their stories.” 

Talking through different scenarios and even role-playing the dialogue are strategies supervisors of GAs can use in training or ongoing development settings with students. Tamara Shetron, a GA at Texas State University–San Marcos, referenced a social justice curriculum she uses with undergraduates, saying: “We attempt to infuse all our coursework with pedagogies that help students embrace their personal histories and experiences and move forward through academia by taking stock of what they bring to the academic table and what the academic table has to offer them.” 

Being proactive about how GAs might approach different groups is a first step. Educating undergraduate student leaders and members in advance of events or incidents on campus is another. Both can serve to keep the door open for further conversation. 


Supervisors and mentors are important people in GA student development, so discussing their roles in the experiences of GAs around gradvocacy is essential. GAs will look to both supervisors and mentors to provide guidance around how to do social justice work. So how can supervisors engage in productive and supportive strategies around their GAs’ gradvocacy work? Research in the book Learning Through Supervised Practice revealed that the organizational culture is what most affects the relationship between GAs and their supervisor. When GAs are struggling with or supporting undergraduate students’ struggles with institutional culture, this complicates the relationships. Supervisors can encourage GAs to engage in personal audits of the organizational culture, exploring campus artifacts, observing interactions and behavior, and taking time to interview others.  

Supervisors should model behavior that allows GAs to learn and grow. Supervisors must create a culture that supports conflict and one that embraces trust. For supervisors, clearly outlining roles and expectations as well as the ways GAs engage as employees and the freedoms they have as citizens beyond their positions is important. Shetron shared:

“My supervisor and I have also had the conversation about being an activist in the graduate student role, as she was and is an activist herself. She has made it clear that I am a student first and then an employee, so it is therefore to say that I have the right get involved with social justice however I see fit, but to always remember that I do represent the college as well as myself.”  

Gradvocacy in today’s landscape includes on-the-job performance and personal experiences, and those personal experiences and opinions are often showcased in public ways. In a world where there are more opportunities to be a visible advocate on a larger scale, discussing social media as well as other sorts of public action and statements is prudent. 

“I don’t have a nametag on when I post on Facebook,” a GA may say—and that may very well be true—with some implications. As Maldonado-Ruiz shared, “I think that today we have more support from our institutions to take actions, but I also believe that we can be held more accountable for those actions because of social media.” When social justice and social activism take place in social media spaces, the work becomes complex and the lines between personal and professional/student and staff member become further blurred. 

Conversation may be the most productive means to address the intersection of professional role and personal identity. Shetron said Texas State University–San Marcos “created venues for campus dialogues on issues of race and equity, featuring panels of academics to lead students through appropriate ways of dealing with threatening issues. … I think a key to support is opportunity for interface. Our department got a new head last year, and she has been implementing many opportunities for us to meet and listen to and discuss a host of topics. This intellectual camaraderie building helps us to understand each other and our support needs better.”  

In other words, to reduce issues of role confusion and unclear expectations for GAs, supervisors must clearly articulate the departmental definition of advocacy and departmental expectations related to the role of GAs in times of activism and protest. Failure to engage in these difficult conversations may lead to unmet expectations, hurt feelings, and a breakdown in trust. 

Mentors, on the other hand, may have more latitude in what to discuss, but less access to GAs in their daily experiences. Creating intentional ways of surfacing issues related to gradvocacy can provide for a rich exchange of ideas, concerns, and experiences. Drawing upon incidents not only from one’s own campus, but also examining what is going on across higher education and in society is a way mentors can provide meaningful space for learning about gradvocacy. 

Whether supervisor or mentor, sometimes it might be as simple as checking in with a GA. Maldonado-Ruiz shared: “As a graduate student, it is important to know that your supervisor understands why these issues are important to you and how they may overlap with your day-to-day work—noticing that maybe you need to take a break or talk. Mentors need to check up on their mentees and truly see how they are coping with the juggling act of school, work, and life. … Social justice fatigue—it is so real. It is so important to take care of yourself and to find people who truly and honestly care for your well-being.”  


When students start graduate school they are all trying to navigate new environments and new roles. Some transitions are easy while others can be more difficult, but often it is peers to whom graduate students turn for support. It can be easier to find support from peers simply because of a shared understanding of the graduate school workload. Peers who are engaged in the same courses, assistantship or internship, outside commitments, etc., can relate to feelings of being overwhelmed.  

The gradvocacy conversation is important not only throughout departments, but among graduate students themselves. Shetron said: “In my role as a graduate student with other graduate students studying issues of social justice, educational equity, marginalized populations, and so on, we critically examined our own diversity and histories. … As we explored our own stories, we tuned into issues that others might face that we might not.” 

It is important to make sure the work is collaborative and transparent, which requires building on a foundation of trust. The idea of GAs policing one another’s behavior around social justice is counter to the movement itself. Taking note of who is at which event and how many times people participate in protests not only fragments GA cohorts and teams; it also does nothing to support efforts related to (in)justice on campuses. Instead, conversations about students, activities, programs, goals, and challenges can be beneficial. 

Shetron shared an anecdote about when hate fliers were distributed on her campus following the 2016 elections and there were protests that affected a number of her peers—particularly African American classmates. As a result, she and others “prioritized being there as supports for our classmates, offering to walk them anywhere they needed to be on campus, and attending social justice lectures together that arose as a result of the hate fliers.” 

Peers often are in the best position to empathize and provide encouragement. Lifting up one another can be essential to growth and development as gradvocates. Together, peers traverse the challenges and opportunities of supporting students during times of unrest. Peer support is important in combating social justice fatigue and allowing processing and growth to be better student affairs professionals.  

Being a gradvocate in 2018 is different than being a gradvocate in 2006 (or 1996 or 1966, etc.). Colleges are a microcosm of what is happening in society. Different years yield different issues affecting our society. Gradvocates today, as well as in the past, strive to offer support and advocate for students’ well-being, but peers have the benefit of a shared context.  

A Look to the Future 

The role of gradvocates is complex and evolving. As students accept graduate assistantship positions, they become university employees. As such, they may be challenged to identify ways in which they can support students and the campus communities of which they are a part. They are emerging as new(er) professionals, but they are also students themselves, walking a fine line.  

It is incumbent upon supervisors to provide outlets for dialogue, discomfort, and the development of skills and professional expertise to navigate complex situations involving advocacy and activism. Considerations related to campus politics, the student/employee positionality of GAs, and emerging issues and events in higher education are key areas for exploration. In the book Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, Barnard College professor Lee Anne Bell said social justice is both a process and a goal. So is community building. Supervisors, gradvocates, students, and others on campuses are consistently endeavoring to develop stronger communities that foster a sense of belonging for everyone. As Sandoval-Chavez shared, the support should be holistic and cut across positions held: “Ideally the support structure would include supervisors, peers, mentors as well as faculty and staff.” 

Social justice-focused conversations cannot happen only after an incident on campus. They cannot take place solely in the classroom or only outside of the academic setting in the contexts of assistantships or other practice-based experiences. How one chooses to be (or not be) a gradvocate is a crucial part of the graduate student development in student affairs programs. As social justice in higher education evolves, the work continues for graduate students, for the undergraduates they serve, and for others who share a part of their learning and development processes. 

What Supervisors Can Provide:
Reflection for the Work

Shetron shared that she has experienced supervision where the building of “intellectual camaraderie” not only provides support to GAs, but also helps graduate students understand and encourage each other. In aspiring to shape a similar environment, supervisors can use the following questions around training, dialogue, and self-care related to social justice fatigue. 

Ongoing Dialogue about Social Justice  

  • How do you provide space/create opportunities for conversation about social justice issues? 
  • How do you minimize power dynamics to ensure open dialogue in those spaces? 
  • How do you convey your investment in individuals and your commitment to social justice work rather than making this seem like a task on a checklist? 
  • How are you conveying a sense of investment in GAs by making this a part of ongoing dialogue in our ever-changing social, cultural, and political landscape? 
  • How do you create space to have both departmental and one-on-one conversations? 
  • How do you learn about where gradvocates are in terms of their identity and social justice development? 
  • How does your identity impact your work creating dialogue spaces for gradvocates? 
  • How do you engage with others in ways to learn about the identities they hold and what identities are most salient to them? How do you engage with GAs who hold identities different from you own? 

  • What do you have built into hiring and onboarding experiences to get to know your GAs? 
  • How do you incorporate information about campus culture into the training and developmental experiences of GAs? 
  • How do you invest in GAs through training around gradvocacy? 
  • How do you collaborate across functional areas in your training?  
  • What is unique about your department or program that requires additional or different social justice and gradvocacy training? 
  • How do you utilize training experiences throughout the year? 
  • How do you solicit training topics from GAs? 
Social Justice Fatigue  

  • How do you see social justice fatigue manifesting itself on your campus? In your department? With your team? 
  • How do you recognize social justice fatigue for yourself or your GA? 
  • What strategies do you employ to help people manage social justice fatigue? 
  • How do you touch base with students about how they are managing their own well-being in the context of social justice pressures and work? 
  • What are you doing to help GAs exercise self-care? 
  • What questions do you ask to understand the experiences of gradvocates beyond “How are you?” or “How was your week?” 
  • How do you role model managing social justice fatigue? 

Case Studies

To help start the conversation, the following three case studies can foster dialogue and engage in anticipatory thinking about issues gradvocates may face. The first focuses on GA engagement with students, the second with supervisors/mentors, and the last with peers.

Case Study 1: Gradvocacy and Students

Jenni is a second-year graduate student in the higher education and student affairs program at a predominantly white institution in the Northeastern United States. During her first year in the program, a racial incident on campus occurred after the first black female was elected as the student government president. Racist symbols and language were spray painted on buildings directed at black students, faculty, and staff. The week following, students organized protests outside of the university president’s office. The goal was to highlight the fact that the president had not sent any type of message condemning the graffiti or offering words of support to those who may have been affected.  

Jenni’s graduate assistantship includes serving as a co-advisor for several student organizations. Jenni, an Asian American female, decided to attend the protests in support and at the request of black students in some of the organizations she co-advises.  

After Jenni’s participation in the protests, the vice president and secretary of another organization who identify as white, became disengaged and even hostile toward her. After asking more questions, she discovered that both of them thought her participation in the protests made her less approachable because she may perceive them as racist. As a graduate student and employee of the university, Jenni is conflicted with how to approach future protests and situations that involve issues around social justice. She wants to support all of her students but needs direction in how to do so as a graduate student and professional.  

  • How would you go about supporting Jenni and creating dialogue about this incident? How might it inform future training and development for your staff? 
Case Study 2: Gradvocacy and Supervisors/Mentors

James is a second-year graduate student at a large public institution in the Midwestern United States and is studying higher education. He serves as the graduate assistant in the Office of Student Transitions. Through his role, he supervises the 30 undergraduate orientation ambassadors and is heavily involved with the summer preview sessions for new students. James identifies as a white male and was born and raised in the same state where he attends graduate school.  

James has enjoyed his involvement with his cohort-based program but is currently struggling with how best to support advocacy on campus. Given his involvement with newly admitted students and student leaders on campus, he has expressed to his supervisor he is unsure of what he is “allowed” to participate in. He specifically is unsure about attending events or voicing his concerns related to administrative decisions. James has often felt tension around his involvement as both a graduate student and an employee.  

On James’ personal social media account he shared a post about the lack of response from the institution and the recent alt-right posters hung across campus. He is friends with his supervisor, professional colleagues, peer graduate students, professors, and students. Because of this, the boundaries of his role as an individual and as an employee have been ambiguous. A full-time professional who James considers a mentor brings up the post in a staff meeting, and James feels awkward that his post online was brought up in a professional context. 

  • How would you go about supporting James and creating dialogue about this his post? What do you hope James might learn through the process? How might it inform future training and development for your staff? 

Case Study 3: Gradvocacy and Peers

Santiago is a first-year graduate student in the higher education and student affairs program at a large rural public research institution in the Southeastern United States. His program is heavily practitioner-focused with a cohort-based model. Santiago’s cohort is comprised of 40 students. Only eight cohort members identify as students of color. Santiago is from Queens, New York, where he grew up in multiethnic neighborhood and attended a racially diverse undergraduate institution.  

Santiago’s transition to his new institution has been extremely difficult because of the lack of racial diversity on campus and in his program. Santiago is trying to navigate spaces where he is the only Latinx male person in the room. Additionally, he is trying to grasp his dual role as a student and employee working on a campus with a complex history around race in an environment that is particularly challenging for racially minoritized students.  

Santiago is the graduate assistant for the Office of Student Engagement & Leadership on campus. During his spring semester, anti-Latinx graffiti was found on a paint cube. The paint cubes on campus are a great way for student organizations to advertise and promote their upcoming events. The Latinx Student Association cube promoting their “Dreams Deferred” educational event about DACA was defaced with “Build the Wall” and “Latinos Go Back to Mexico.” Many of the student leaders in the organization were significantly affected by this incident and turned to Santiago for emotional support and guidance.  

Santiago does not directly advise these students but is close to them because he finds community in their organization. The next day at work, Santiago’s supervisor was out and no one else in his office brought up the incident that happened the previous day. Santiago felt frustrated and tried to go on with his day as usual.  

  • How would you go about supporting Santiago and creating dialogue about this incident in your area? How would this incident inform future training and development you would coordinate for your team?
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