Oconee’s ombudsperson listens to students, keeps convos confidential

(Photo courtesy Veronica Walker)

College can be a very stressful time for many students, and Veronica Walker, a biology lab coordinator at the University of North Georgia’s Oconee campus, took notice.

Since January 2015, Walker has been working as an ombudsperson. Campus ombuds listen to students and help them identify options and resources useful for navigating many conflicts that arise during college.

Walker earned a certification from the International Ombudsman Association prior to formally taking the ombuds position, which is a volunteer role. She is a steward for students; Walker is here to help, not because she gets paid but because she cares about the student body and knows how confusing the bureaucracy of higher education can be.

“Students may have an issue arise, whether personal or school-related, that they don’t know how to address,” Walker said. “They may be afraid of what will happen if they report their concerns. … A lot of problems can be reduced by just allowing visitors a space to be heard.”

This is where the role of the ombuds comes into play.

Walker will listen to students’ concerns and provide a safe space cemented by four basic pillars: neutrality, independence, confidentiality and informality.

Neutrality and independence are ever-present, as Walker does not answer to any department.

“My position as a non-administrative staff member means that there is no fear of the repercussions difficult discussions my incur,” Walker says. For example (a hypothetical one — Walker is iron-clad regarding real-life conversations), if a student has a qualm with a professor, Walker will listen and help the student understand university policy without the professor or department head ever knowing.

Students can visit Walker with a guarantee that nothing they discuss will ever leave the room. She doesn’t even take notes during the conversations, and encourages students to drop by for visits rather then set up an appointment through internal emails, to ensure maximum privacy. Some issues can be very personal, but Walker never discloses anything, with one exception.

“If there is a clear Title IX violation or there is imminent danger of self-harm or harming others, I am required, by law, to report to higher authorities,” Walker says. Other than that exception, there is absolutely no paper trail or documentation of visits with the ombuds.

The fourth pillar of the Office of Ombuds, informality, is just as important as the others. “I have a private office and a private phone, so students wanting to meet on campus can reach me easily,” Walker says. If students want to visit off-campus, that is no problem either. Walker visits with students at coffee shops and bookstores for a variety of reasons.

“The ultimate goal,” Walker says, “is to inform, and for students to be more resourceful, and more aware of resources after the visit.”

Each UNG campus has its own ombuds office and representatives, but Walker can meet with any Nighthawk. Appointments can be made at http://ung.edu/ombudsman/ or via an email to StudentOmbudsOconee@ung.edu. Walker also encourages students to just drop by her office in the 500 building if they want to be more discreet.

With additional reporting by Ethan White

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