What is an ombudsman?
As the good students of UAA walk from building to building, from class to class, they can walk tall, free from fear of their rights being violated. They have a silent guardian, watching and waiting eagle-eyed for any breach of a student’s rights. Well, maybe not a silent guardian. ‘Silent’ and ‘waiting’ both fail to describe UAA’s new ombudsman and protector of student rights, who can often be seen in the Student Union advising students, attending meetings or talking with anyone and everyone who walks by. Grievances, issues or questions: Demry Mebane, a pre-law Junior majoring in political science, is here to help as the new USUAA ombudsman, and his door is open.
“The ombudsman, to put it plainly, is an advocate for students. You have a problem with a grade, or you have a problem with a class, or you have a personal problem that is impacting your academics and you don’t know what to do, you go to Demry,” explains USUAA President Jonathon Taylor.
Some people are born civic-minded, some have service thrust upon them and some people stumble into it while browsing the Internet.
“I was doing research on the constitution of USUAA and found that we had no ombudsman,” Mebane explains. “After reading the duties of the ombudsman, I felt as though somebody needed to be the advocate for students. We need somebody able to inform students, and if nobody was doing that on campus, that needed to change.”
Demry wasn’t the only one who wasn’t aware of the ombudsman. Student Trey Feagin-Walden admitted that he, like many at the school, did not know what the position of ombudsman was, or what rights he has, but was kind enough to make a guess for The Northern Light.
“Ombudsman,” reflected Feagin-Walden, rolling the word around his mouth. “I assume he’s an older man who… removes barnacles,” he hypothesizes, “off of the bottom of boats, or maybe ships.”
When asked what rights he enjoyed at UAA, he queried, “I have rights? Like the right to remain silent?”
The students of UAA have numerous rights, however.
“We have a code of conduct and it contains a list of student rights and responsibilities, but sometimes it’s confusing what they look like, or how they are applied. Demry’s job is to tell people what their rights are and how they apply to their situation,” clarifies President Taylor.
Mebane wants to increase awareness of these rights that so few know about.
“You have a lot of rights, and a lot of students don’t seem to know this,” explains Mebane. “That’s one of the reasons to have an on-campus ombudsman, to let them know what they have. Students have the freedom of expression, freedom of access, freedom of association, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, a right to a safe and positive learning environment and student participation in institutional government.”
While students are encouraged to thoroughly read, or open, the student code of conduct, the USUAA constitution and the student handbook, the ombudsman is more than happy to the help few students that don’t religiously read university policies.
“I think that most students don’t really think about their rights day to day, and like most people, they don’t really actively care about an issue, till things go south. When things do though, I’m here to be support and information for even the pettiest issue,” says Mebane. “My sole purpose is to help the students, whether it be being a source of information for the students, helping them with their cases, dealing with misconduct or dealing with any appeal processes or academic disputes. I’m there as the student advocate on behalf of the rights they have, and that many of them don’t know they have.”
Student Life and Leadership director and former advisor for The Northern Light, Annie Route noted that, “It’s a little bit like going to court and having a court advocate. It can be scary. You’ve never been here before, you don’t know what to do, but the ombudsman is there for you.”
Mebane is ready to help any and all students map the intricacies of UAA policies. He doesn’t want students to be afraid of going alone.
“Students don’t know what happens when they violate the student code of conduct. They don’t really know what the process is going to be,” said Mebane. “I’m here to not only simplify the process for them, but also act as a support. If a two-way confidentiality form is signed, I can be their defender, their confidant and sit in with them in meetings they’ve got to go to.”
Privacy is tantamount for the ombudsman, and students can speak freely without fear of reprisal. Mebane made it very clear that anything he talks about with students as an ombudsman is confidential.
Demry Mebane was too humble to boast of his qualifications during the interview, focusing on the job, and how much he was learning from his fellows. His fellow members of student government held no such reservations about boasting of Mebane.
“It’s going to be fantastic,” predicts USUAA Senator Ashleigh Roe. “I’ve mostly only worked with Demry during this semester and he’s already wonderful. He’s just got his first case and he’s super excited… He’s trusting, trustworthy and always willing to go the extra mile for people. Come to him for any reason, issues on campus, issues with faculty or other students or even if you just need to talk he’s there.”
Mebane finished the interview with his message to the student body.
“My name is Demry Mebane, if you feel your rights as a student have been infringed upon, if you have had any issues on campus, then email me, call me or walk into my office. Students have rights, they have responsibilities as well. I’m here to show you both and walk with you through the process.”