Problem solving at Portland State

A majority of Portland State students have no idea what the Ombuds Office is or does.

A majority of Portland State students have no idea what the Ombuds Office is or does.

“I serve the entire campus: students, staff, faculty, parents, alumni and any people who use the campus,” said Sandy McDermott, the only ombuds at Portland State.

At the Ombuds Office in Smith Memorial Student Union, McDermott plays the role of mediator, counselor, advisor and confidante for anyone who comes to her with a problem that concerns the university.

However, the Ombuds Office varies in critical ways from other mediation and advising services on campus, such as the Undergraduate Advising and Support Center or the Student Legal and Mediation Services.

“This office is different because we are an informal resource resolving conflicts and providing new perspectives,” McDermott said. “We are informal, impartial, independent and confidential.”

When McDermott receives reports of sexual assault or harassment, the Ombuds Office becomes a referral service to other on- and off-campus resources, which McDermott considers to be her partners.

“When that happens, after letting the victim know of other on-campus resources that can meet their needs,” McDermott said, “I will walk that person over to the Women’s Resource Center or to the Center for Student Health and Counseling.”

The Ombuds Office is not an advocate for the individual or for the university. The office cannot assist you if you are already engaged in a formal complaint process or legal battle, and it cannot testify at formal legal proceedings or make official decisions.

“I’m kind of a reality check in that way,” McDermott said of her ombuds role.

What the Ombuds Office can do is listen carefully and discuss concerns, provide information and referrals, facilitate communication, help to develop and evaluate options and offer an impartial perspective to prevent negative conflict through early intervention.

Issues that are relevant to the Ombuds Office are any conflicts or problems that arise within or relate to Portland State. As the only ombuds at Portland State, this can be overwhelming for McDermott as she is presented with a huge variety of cases.

“Some of the problems that are brought to me can be solved in a couple of minutes, others can take much longer,” McDermott said.

When faculty or staff members seek the input of the Ombuds Office, McDermott is faced with mediating complicated conflicts that address work conditions and vary significantly from the issues that arise when she is working with students.

“When faculty or staff members come here, it can take more time because it becomes a workplace concern,” McDermott said. “You’re working with different personalities, and we have three unions on campus, so there’s a maze of opinions and needs that need to be balanced.”

Since the Ombuds Office serves the entire Portland State community, McDermott is often the first to notice trends among the individuals who come to her for aid. This year, the trend has been students who self-identify as homeless.

“Three years ago, I saw one student who self-identified as homeless, and it stuck with me. The next year, I saw two or three students who self-identified as homeless,” McDermott said. “This year it was enough that the number concerned me.”

Although frustrated that she does not have the resources to aid these students with housing, food or textbook costs, McDermott has turned to her parish for solutions and has developed resources for these students herself, going beyond her role as an ombuds.

“Personally, I carry life packs with me, so I have something to give students who come to me and say that they aren’t able to afford a meal. The youth in the parish that I attend put them together,” McDermott said.

McDermott developed a list of on- and off-campus resources that are able to better address the material and emotional or mental concerns of homeless Portland State students.

“I hope that students feel comfortable coming to talk to me,” McDermott said. “A lot of people come to the Ombuds Office just to talk to someone, and that’s fine. But I’m not a counselor. I don’t do therapy, but I will give them a different perspective.”

McDermott is working to make sure that the Portland State community is clear about what services the Ombuds Office does and does not offer. Increased clarity, according to McDermott, will help students figure out what resources will best address their needs.

“When students come to me, I hope they’ve taken time to review our brochure and Web site so that they don’t have false expectations of what we can and can’t do,” McDermott said.

Students who have reviewed the brochure and Web site are encouraged to set up an appointment with the Ombuds Office, which is, at this time, unable to accept walk-ins due to the high volume of concerns that are surfacing during its peak season.