Ombudsman has aided USF students through crises
TAMPA - Around a corner and out of sight in the old administration building at the University of South Florida is a place that Samuel Wright believes offers salvation to students in trouble. It's USF's Student Ombudsman's office, where Wright hears the needs, frustrations and fears of students who often have nowhere else to go. In the past two years, he's seen nearly 1,100 students. And not just lost freshmen. "All different types of people have come here," he said. Young, old, graduate students, medical students.Many come in for financial help. The office has two backstop funding programs for students who have received all they can from financial aid and still don't have enough to pay their bills. Some are having trouble with professors, the registrar or some other office on campus. Others just need to vent. "That office has made a major change on this campus," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, who was recruited by USF President Judy Genshaft to start the program in 2007. Central to its work are two financial aid programs. One is a one-time grant of up to $250 for emergencies. Students must document the need and the money goes straight to that need — the bookstore or electric company, for instance. The other, the President's Retention Grant, offers up to $1,500 per student, with the goal of stopping the student from dropping out because of financial problems. About 33 students have received emergency and retention grants in the past two years. But Wright has more to offer than money. With an open box of tissues handy on his desk and a long list of community and university contacts, he plays the role of listener, facilitator, guide, counselor and cheerleader. "I try to get students to navigate the system themselves," Wright said. "My philosophy is not to interfere with the academic process." Wright, who began at USF in student advising, came to academia somewhat late in life after working as a community activist and Boynton Beach city councilman and holding half a dozen odd jobs. He has many philosophies. Always get to know your professor, he tells students. You're one of dozens, and professors can't know you need something unless you tell them. Realize that anything worth doing is hard. "The road to success is always under construction," he said. And know that you are stronger than you believe you are. He likes to talk about the palm tree that bends but doesn't break. He used that image with one student he says he'll never forget. She was smart and a good student, aiming for medical school, but she worked two jobs to help her mother in South Florida pay her mortgage. It wasn't enough. Her mother was about to lose the house. The young woman was driving herself hard trying to keep her grades up and keep her mother in her home, too. Through a series of referrals, she wound up sitting across from Wright. He was able to give her a small one-time grant to take some of the pressure off. But Wright gave her his time, too. "I talked to her about that palm tree," he said, picking up a coaster he keeps on his desk with a picture of a palm tree. "She cried and cried and cried" as she let out her worries. And she ended up staying in school. "Some students get into a panic and they don't see a way out," he said. "But there usually is." He also worked closely with a woman, Twaila Walker, who was trying to attend school while she was homeless. She'd been accepted into a graduate program on the condition that she completed a couple of courses first. But she couldn't juggle the classes and the job at the homeless shelter where she lived. Wright tapped his deep contacts in the community last year and helped her get a job, first at the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa, then at a call center, where she still works. She's living in a house now and thinking about "taking another whack" at school, she said. She continues to talk to Wright and his assistant, Tina Van Zile. "He's still my mentor," Walker said. "I can't even express the influence he's had on my life. It's something I can never repay." Wright has one over-riding message: Don't quit. The first in his family to go to college, he graduated from the University of Florida. He sees college as much more than a pathway to a good job. "This is a way out of poverty for so many people," he said. "Just one child going to college can turn a family around. That one link gets it going." And he thinks a little bit of money, or maybe just the right words, can keep a student going. "Words have power." That's another one of his philosophies. Wright received a Kente Award this year from USF's African American Advisory Committee to the President. He has served on commissions and advisory boards, including the Florida Fund for Minority Teachers. He's vice president of the Hillsborough County NAACP. But after February, he will no longer be the USF ombudsman. He's retiring. He has no doubts the office will go on. And he has advice for who-ever takes over for him. "It's draining," he said. "But it's also a blessing."
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