By Steffi Kutcher, Orange Media Network
Student interns train for peer advocacy program coming winter term.
The Office of Advocacy, which is operated by the Associated Students of Oregon State University, exists to assist students facing conflicts with the university.
The program supports students dealing with challenges such as student conduct issues, housing concerns and academic disagreements putting students at odds with professors, according to Daniel Dietz, the Office’s full-time student advocate. Dietz’s job entails meeting with students and working to understand the problem they are facing, then collaborating with his staff to develop a solution.
“We meet with students and we listen,” Dietz said. “No matter what the student’s perspective is, we are going to support that, because that is our role.”
According to Ryan Khalife, a student intern in the Office for three years, the group has assisted students in issues ranging from academic misconduct charges to conflicts with University Housing and Dining Services, concerns regarding financial aid and interactions with campus police.
“Even if it is not something that seems like a major issue, if a student just wants to talk about it, if something happens and they are not sure what the next steps are, we really welcome students to come in,” Khalife said.
The first step for students dealing with university problems is to visit the Office or contact them via email or phone, according to Dietz. For example, if a student’s GPA has suffered after a challenging life event, the Office can assist the student in petitioning the Registrar’s Office to retrospectively change their transcript.
“That is a powerful way for a student to be able to stay here, there are a number of students on campus who might not be here had they not succeeded in that process,” Dietz said. “We really work with students on identifying when they might be able to do that, encouraging them to complete the necessary steps and hopefully giving them the strength to use their own voices to prevail.”
Academic misconduct, especially accusations of cheating, is one of the most common problems students come to the Office with, according to Dietz.
“I call that a wicked problem, because it is a massive issue with no obvious solution,” Dietz said. “We look for and we push for systemic solutions, but it continues to be a challenge. And there is a disparity impact—it really impacts students from our international communities and the stakes for those students are really high.”
According to the university’s Student Conduct and University Standards website, academic misconduct includes cheating, plagiarism and other actions that compromise the integrity of the education process.
Students facing these charges have the opportunity to provide a statement detailing their side of the story, which is given to a College Hearing Officer who weighs the case based on the evidence, according to Khalife.
“If you feel as if, in making their decision they did not follow the proper process or they did not look at all the evidence, students can appeal,” Khalife said. “A student can come in at any point during the process and we will help them with their statements, give them advice on what you should bring out in your statements and also how the process works.”
In addition to their work on a student-by-student basis, the office also advocates at a university-wide level, according to Dietz. One of these areas of advocacy is helping international students in the INTO program understand their rights as students and feel welcome on campus.
“When we identify issues that impact students across time and across campus, our goal is to try to look for the systemic causes or roots of those issues and to have conversations with other people around campus about how we might collaboratively work together towards solutions,” Dietz said.
The office focuses on person-centered advocacy, meaning they try to serve whatever individual students need in a particular moment, ranging from conversations to attending meetings with faculty, according to Khalife. In the current system, Dietz and Molly Chambers, the office’s assistant student advocate, work directly on behalf of student clients and the student interns provide behind-the-scenes support. However, this term, student staff members are being trained to serve as Peer Advocates, Khalife added. Beginning winter term, these experienced interns will assist their fellow students face-to-face, guiding them through the processes for their individual issues.
“Our goal is that any time a student walks into our office, we will be able to help them immediately, rather than scheduling an appointment,” Khalife said.
According to Catherine Mina, a student intern at the Office, four years ago, her interest in the law field led her to working for the program. Mina compared her current work to a paralegal in the professional world: from welcoming clients into the Office and scheduling appointments, to researching student issues and taking notes during consultations. In winter term, Mina will be stepping into the role of Peer Advocate.
“There is a really big need for peer-to-peer advocacy and for students to know that it is not just adults in suits that want to help them, that it is students that are here on campus that want to lobby for them,” Mina said. “I am really passionate about this work, and I am applying to law school right now, and so this is also really good training for me.”
Mina and three other Office interns have worked at the Office for at least two years, making them eligible to be trained as Peer Advocates, according to Mina. This training prepares students to handle the majority of student needs. However, cases that could result in expulsion or suspension are handled by Dietz or Chambers directly.
All cases that Peer Advocates work on will initially go through either Chambers or Dietz, then referred to a student Peer Advocate, according to Mina. She hopes that students seeking help from their peers will be empowered to advocate for themselves.
“The only difference, really, between the student and the Peer Advocate is that I just know a few more things,” Mina said. “It is not like I went through any more schooling than they did, or I am any older, or that there is that much difference between me and the student client, it is just that I have a little bit more training and I have done a little more research.”
According to Mina, all students should understand that the service is free to access as often as necessary, as it is funded by the ASOSU student fee.
“We are just a group of really passionate people who want to help students on campus,” Mina said. “We have walked people over to Counseling and Psychological Services before, we will walk them down to Kerr, sometimes it is just really nice to have someone on your side—as simple as walking them to another building can be very impactful for students who feel lost or do not have a good support system. More than anything, our doors are open and anyone is welcome in here.”