Policy, procedure, and advocacy

Illustration by Ed Appleby.
Illustration by Ed Appleby.

Three boring words that just might be music to your ears

By Sophie Isbister, Life & Style Editor

As the last day of class draws near and the end of semester approaches, many Douglas College students will be turning their thoughts to tropical vacations, beer pong, and the ever-elusive summer job. But others might be concerned about more academic matters—things like their academic standing, registration for summer semester, or perhaps an experience of perceived unfairness with an instructor or dean. This is where the office of the ombudsperson comes in, to help you navigate the musty labyrinth of policy, procedure, and advocacy.

The ombudsperson is a role at an institution whose job is to provide unbiased support and advocacy to their client. Tracy Ho, who currently works at the Douglas Students’ Union as College Relations and Member Outreach Coordinator, described the job thusly: “I see the role of the ombudsperson as laying out everything very clearly, [and] answering any questions that the person may have about the next step, and [offer] clarification on policy and that kind of thing.” Ho is currently the acting ombudsperson, and has been in the role since May of last year. She has a long history of working with students’ unions, having started as an elected representative at the University of Victoria’s students’ union, and later working as staff at the Vancouver Community College students’ union. Ho spoke with The Other Press about her work as interim ombudsperson, and what that role can do for students.

Ho says that the most common types of cases she deals with are grade appeals, and that while the ombudsperson acts primarily as an advisor on policy, she can and will accompany students to meetings associated with their potential (or actual) appeals case. ”[W]e’ll sit down and go through their case and talk about what has happened, the timeline of the issue, what they think the issue is, what kind of resolution they’re looking for… and then we go through the process and procedure that’s already laid… by the college policy,” says Ho.

She adds, “Usually we go through that, and [then] the ombudsperson would advise the student what the next steps are, and then offer to attend meetings with them.” The first step of the official appeals process is an informal sit down with the instructor, dean, or department chair. The ombudsperson always offers to attend these meetings with the student, but Ho tells us, “It’s up to [the student] if they want the ombudsperson to be present or not.”

Having a peer advocate by your side when you’re dealing with the stress of an appeals process is very useful. Since the bulk of the appeals cases an ombudsperson takes on are regarding academic standing, the busiest time for Ho is usually after final grades have been released. And since the official appeals process can take a long time, students are usually enrolled in the following semester’s courses by the time they’re in these appeal meetings. Ho stresses the importance of having the ombudsperson there as a peer support network, as well as a policy buff.

“Oftentimes, students are already in a stressful situation, and they have to present their case, lay out everything that’s happened, and they have to request and the resolutions [they] would like, and oftentimes they aren’t able to take notes because they’re so stressed out already about dealing with this.” Ho says that’s where the ombudsperson can provide real support in meetings, by taking notes for the student, or catching information they may have missed. “[With] an ombudsperson there, [just] having another person providing the peer support provides a huge support network,” she says.

So what is the appeals process? Ho says, “If an informal meeting doesn’t come to a resolution, then we’d begin the formal steps of requesting to the dean an appeal. Then there are a number of different steps, eventually [leading] to an appeals committee where a student would present and then an instructor would present and then the appeals committee would make a final decision.”

According to the Douglas College website, the Grades Appeals Committee is made up of one dean and one counsellor (who are both non-voting members), two instructors from within the faculty in question (including one from the program in question, and one from outside the program), and one student. The two faculty members and the one student member of the committee vote.

Having a transparent policy publically-posted on the Douglas College website is important, and having many systems in place for students to appeal decisions they deem unfair is crucial in fostering a supportive educational institution. Ho states that it’s “Really important for students to know they have rights and [that] their perspective is important for us to hear. If they do have an issue, there are people to talk to.”

There is no shortage of people to talk to. In the Student Appeals policy posted on the college website, it states that, “Students are encouraged to consult with a College Counsellor, the Douglas Students’ Union Ombudsperson, the First Nations Services Coordinator, the Women’s Centre Coordinator, or the Centre for Students with Disabilities Coordinator prior to filing a formal written Appeal.” It’s a good idea to consult in an unofficial capacity first, because as Ho says, sometimes an informal resolution can be met simply by sitting down and talking about it.

Ho says that students will sometimes decide not to go through with the process after speaking with her, but that it’s important that students come and speak with the ombudsperson regardless of whether they are certain of their case or not: “We don’t keep records that identify students, but we can keep track of the different types of issues that students come to us [with]. The ombudsperson can know what kind of issues the students are facing, and the DSU can know what the issues are … so the DSU can more accurately lobby for policy changes. It’s very important that, even if you come in and you’re just venting, then we know [the issues], and students union can be much more informed about advocating for the right changes that are needed for students to have a better education experience.”

This is why Ho feels that the ombudsperson provides crucial help about which students should be aware. “It’s one of the most important services that the students’ union provides for students at Douglas. Advocacy and voice, and just helping them,” Ho says.

She closes our interview with an encouragement to students to come see the ombudsperson at the DSU at either the New Westminster or David Lam campus: these systems are put in place to help students, to help take a bit of weight off your shoulders during stressful times.