The Student Ombuds Program launched its pilot initiative this semester as a confidential resource for students seeking help or advice in relation to their academic and campus life at the University, including concerns about their experiences in classrooms, on athletic teams, or with their peers. Amy Guaman ’22, Kalyani Mohan ’22, Logan Tomlinson ’23, and Sarah Asiedu ’24 will serve as the inaugural group of student Ombuds for the 2021–22 academic year. The four Ombuds are supported by Dean for Academic Equity, Inclusion, and Success April Ruiz.
“The Student Ombuds primarily are a safe, non-judgemental, confidential student-based resource primarily with the intention of supporting students, navigating communication in various different institutional settings,” Mohan said. “That can also be just listening to them and that can also be pointing them [to]…the other resources that can help you talk about this issue with various other people on campus, or just talking about what are the different ways in which you can talk about issues that are not necessarily the most straightforward or easy to deal with in your daily life.”
Applications for the Student Ombuds positions were sent out at the end of the Spring 2021 semester. Ruiz explained that one of the central focuses during the selection process was trying to build a group that had connections to all academic divisions and athletics.
“In a team of four you could never represent all of the experiences and identities of an entire campus,” Ruiz said. “But what we wanted to do was make sure that we had a team of folks who had different connections to academic…[and] extracurricular spaces on campus, different life experiences before coming to Wesleyan…and also an awareness of the experiences that they don’t have.”
The Student Ombuds underwent an intensive three-day training session from Sept. 1 to Sept. 3, before the start of the fall semester. During this period, they worked with various University faculty and staff members, including Ruiz, University Ombudsperson Israela Brill-Cass, Assistant Vice President for Equity and Inclusion and Title IX Coordinator Debbie Colucci. The group also worked closely with other staff members across academics and athletics, to learn which resources they could connect students with and become involved in.
“People [in] different departments around campus came and talked to us and it was kind of eye-opening [to learn about] a lot of the resources we have and a lot of the different administration that are there for us to reach out to that I had no idea existed,” Tomlinson said. “It just showed to me how there’s a lack of knowledge among the student body about what’s available to you and what you can do for whatever issues you have, so I think just for us to be able to learn that, and now we have that information and we can help get it to other students who could benefit from it, is a great thing.”
The inaugural group of Ombuds has also focused on bonding with one another and working together.
“We feel like a team,” Guaman said. “We are very different in terms of not just the majors but positions that we cover and the roles that we have on campus and our personalities, and I think we’re really well balanced.”
Although Ruiz only began working at the University in January 2021, discussions about creating a new resource like the Student Ombuds program had been going on for the last two years. According to Ruiz, the student body expressed their desire for such a resource to Vice President for Equity & Inclusion and Title IX Officer Alison Williams, Provost Nicole Stanton, and Vice President for Student Affairs Mike Whaley. Once she started working at the University, Ruiz became the forerunner for the project, working in collaboration with both administrative and student leaders.
“The idea for a Student Ombuds program is really born out of and inspired by and informed by student voices,” Ruiz said. “So this was born out of conversations that were happening within the athletic community, within the STEM community, as just two examples…and the same sorts of themes were emerging. I was not at Wesleyan at that time, of course, but this is what’s been shared with me…. So the development and the idea for [the program] is definitely coming out from students saying that they want this resource, and also faculty and staff supporting students and their desire for that resource.”
Mohan explained that she believes the tight-knit nature of the University is one of the main reasons the program is so necessary.
“Wesleyan is a very, very small school and everybody knows everybody,” Mohan said. “And even though our first instinct would be to reach out to a friend for support, sometimes that’s not the most productive because your friends know you. And they have a certain perspective of looking at things and sometimes you just need some neutrality, you just need to talk to somebody and just need them to listen and offer objective solutions or point you to the right resources.”
Many of the Ombuds expressed that some of their chief reasons for applying to the program were related to diversity and representation at the University.
“When I came to Wesleyan for the first time, I was in shock at what a white school this is, what a PWI [Predominantly White Institution] it is, coming from a very international context,” Mohan said. “I didn’t know what a PWI is because I’ve never lived in the States. And so as a result, the kind of cultural transition I had to undergo to fit in as a student and kind of learn the cultural norms were kind of hurled at me in my freshman year. And that sentiment kind of echoed a lot with some of my other international friends.”
A need for more diverse representation in STEM fields was one of Asiedu’s primary motivations for applying.
“[The program] really stems from a lot of discussion around just the need for diversity within the Natural Science Department here at Wesleyan and just STEM in general and the support for students of color within those departments,” Asiedu said. “And I think, just being a pre-med student, I could talk a lot about that and just see…the need for support and the dynamics that shape a lot of experiences for students of color studying in those fields. And so I just wanted there to be a space where students of color could feel like there was someone to go to in case anything arises.”
For Guaman, the chance to represent students who can relate to her background was an important part of her decision to apply for the program.
“I have been in roles like this before and it always feels great to be a resource for students,” Guaman said. “It was also really important to me to at least try to apply, ’cause I wanted students who look like me, who are students of color or women, [to] feel like they’re represented in this group and feel like they have someone to talk to or relate to or feel safe around if they need to have conversations. And especially as a senior, I think it also just felt really important and special to do something like this that’s so big and leave a legacy behind.”
Similarly, Mohan was drawn to the position because of her previous experiences listening to peers and a desire to help establish the program during her final year at the University.
“In my personal life, I do a lot of listening to friends,” Mohan said. “I was an RA before I was an Ombud, so all of those skills are things I have experience with and I was like, ‘This is something I’d like to do and help set up before I graduate from Wesleyan.’”
Tomlinson explained that he decided to apply for the opportunity to help his fellow students after being sent the application by his football coach.
“I’ve done tutoring before for middle schoolers through college student [age],” Tomlinson said. “I’ve also done a youth mentor program for the…football team I played on when I was young, so when I got into high school, I went back and I was a mentor for the younger kids and both of those things, I was really grateful to be able to do. I felt like that’s a very empowering position where you can create a positive impact on someone else and help them achieve and overcome whatever they’re going through and I thought this was another great opportunity for that.”
As the program launches, Ruiz emphasized the collaboration that has gone into, and will continue to go into, the project.
“One of the things that the Student Ombuds team [and I have] discussed is how we’re partners in making this happen, that we have open communication, that we see ourselves as a team, that each of them has really important experience perspective to bring, and I want us to be collaborators,” Ruiz said.
Mohan also emphasized the support the Student Ombuds have received from Ruiz as they work together to launch the program.
“The Dean has been absolutely wonderful,” Mohan said. “She’s been supporting us through all of the processes, recognizing that a lot of what we’re about to head into is very heavy, emotional labor for a lot of folks depending on what they talk to us about. Keeping that in mind, sort of coming up with strategies and ways in which we can accommodate those other people’s needs as well as our own.”
Asiedu explained that as the inaugural group of Student Ombuds works to develop the foundation for the program, they hope to set the stage for years of future Ombuds.
“We are the first group, so it’s a learning experience for us all, but it’s a really good way for us to kind of set this foundation because this is a resource that’s going to be at Wesleyan for a long time,” Asiedu explained. “Our goal is [for the program] to have [an] institutional memory on campus.”
For now, the program has been focused on making sure students on campus are aware of this new resource.
“A short-term goal is getting the word out and making sure students know about the program,” Ruiz said. “A[nother] short term goal is making it such that students feel comfortable reaching out to the ombuds to have these conversations.”
The group will also be delivering a presentation to the Wesleyan Student Assembly on Sunday, Oct. 3 about conflict management and communication.
“They’ll have an opportunity to share some of those tools and strategies and just points of things to reflect on with a larger number of students [at the WSA meeting], as we all think about how do we navigate difficult conversations with each other that seem really tense and can be fraught, and how can we do it in a way that’s productive and healthy and where we’re really actually listening to each other and we’re actually communicating with one another,” Ruiz said. “I would love to see the Ombuds program continue to do that work in lots of different spaces over time.”
As the program gets its footing during the remainder of the fall semester, the Student Ombuds hope that students will grow comfortable with using the program as a resource.
“All five of us—the four of us [Student Ombuds] and Dean Ruiz—are really excited about it, and we welcome anyone to come,” Tomlinson said. “Please don’t feel unwelcome or feel like you can’t reach out. You can reach out about whatever it may be and we’re happy to help in any way we can.”
Students can contact the Ombuds individually via email to schedule an appointment or reach out to the general group by emailing email@example.com.
Jiyu Shin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sam Hilton can be reached at email@example.com.