Students who find themselves facing a particularly confusing issue might consider turning to Emory University’s ombudsperson, who helps students resolve academic and non-academic conflicts at the University. In managing the position, Director of the Center for Women Dona Yarbrough, Emory’s ombudsperson, assists students with a range of issues including financial aid billing, transcript problems, Honor Code disputes and harassment allegations.
The ombud position at Emory was created as part of the 2012 Campus Life Compact for Building an Inclusive Community, which was designed to address “growing student concerns” about “issues of race, gender, privilege, sexual violence and oppression on campus.” The role is supposed to “serve as a clearinghouse for student-reported incidents of bias,” namely incidents of racial, gender, sexual and other forms of discrimination, according to the compact. However, the role has evolved to encompass a broader range of purposes.
“Typically, students contact me when they have a particular, somewhat complicated problem,” Yarbrough said. “They may be having a conflict with a professor, needing help navigating Emory offices and systems or [are] seeking information about how to make a complaint or who best to talk to about a situation.”
Michael Shutt, Campus Life senior director of community initiatives, said the ombudsperson is crucial to helping students navigate the different systems at Emory.
“There are so many resources, but it can sometimes be hard to find them when they are most needed,” Shutt said. “It may also be difficult to think through strategies when a complex problem occurs in or out of the classroom. The ombudsperson supports students find resources and identify problem-solving strategies.”
Yarbrough explained that, as the ombudsperson, she helps students resolve problems by referring them to the necessary resources or faculty members.
“I do not conduct investigations, overrule decisions made by another University official or take formal complaints, but I can help students get in touch with the people who can do those things,” Yarbrough said.
Yarbrough is also required to keep students’ identities anonymous when they seek her assistance, unless required by law or compelled by imminent risk of harm.
Although the ombud role does not require specific academic qualifications, the job does require certain skills and personality traits, Yarbrough said. The International Ombudsman Association, which supports and connects ombuds worldwide, explains that ombudspeople must be active listeners, successful communicators and problem solvers.
Yarbrough said her doctorate in English and her experiences teaching writing, literature and public speaking have helped her assist students in communicating their problems to faculty members.
“Often, when students come in, they give me a somewhat jumbled and very emotional monologue about everything that’s going on [in their lives],” Yarbrough said. “I help them prioritize their objectives, organize and edit what they want to say.”
Yarbrough’s previous positions as an on-call dean and in sexual assault crisis intervention taught her to remain calm in stressful situations, she said.
Besides her ombuds role, which Yarbrough said comprises only 10 percent of her job, Yarbrough also works as senior director of learning and innovation in Campus Life. While Yarbrough has mostly worked in areas of diversity and inclusion throughout her professional career, she has also dabbled in academic and student affairs. She joined the University as a faculty member 10 years ago and said that working as ombudsperson has become one of her favorite jobs at Emory.
“I’m part advisor, part coach and part detective,” Yarbrough said. “[But] at heart, I’m an educator, so it feels great both to help students in the moment and to help them gain some real-life skills that will help them in the future.”