Diane Hawco’s road to becoming Dalhousie’s first full-time ombudsperson started thanks to the power of television in an era of power suits with ridiculously large shoulder pads.
“As a child I wanted to be a lawyer, maybe a bit because 1980s shows like L.A. Law and Street Legal made it all seem so glamorous,” she says.
But when it came time to go to Memorial University in her home province of Newfoundland, she faced the same thing many first-year students do: not knowing what she really wanted to do with her university years and beyond.
“Deciding what to do with the rest of your life is a pretty difficult decision for an 18-year-old,” she says. “I spent my first year taking various courses and volunteering, looking for career inspiration. I was tutoring young girls at a group home, and one day the director offered me a job there and suggested that I look into social work as a career option.”
That encouragement spurred on Diane to enrol in her first social work course the following semester—starting her on a path that, today, has taken her to the role of university ombudsperson, a position she started in this past Monday, November 7.
An independent and impartial resource
Established earlier this year by the university and the Dal Student Union, the ombudsperson’s office offers an independent and impartial resource for students who want to resolve university-related concerns. Diane will help them navigate the rules and policies of the university, explain the processes, and act as a confidential ear.
“It’s the goal of the ombudsperson to ensure that students feel listened to and supported, so they can feel confident that whatever step they choose is based on an understanding of how that step will unfold and how it may impact the outcome they desire,” she says.
Diane honed those listening skills while working as a youth corrections and addictions counsellor for the N.L. Departments of Social Services and Health after university. But spending time on the job in Youth Court and working with offenders in a provincial corrections facility, Diane once again felt the lure of studying law.
“After working as a social worker, I saw law school as a way to enhance and explore my passion for social justice,” she says. “The knowledge and understanding of how our laws are made, how they’re interpreted, and especially how they impact policy has been incredibly useful to me as someone who has always worked at the intersection of law and social work.”
For the past 10 years, Diane has worked for the Ontario Court of Justice and, primarily, for the Nova Scotia Department of Justice as a mediator and conciliator with family law clients, and in the Victim Services division delivering programs and support to victims of crime.
Diane says what drew her to the Dal ombudsperon’s role is the chance to use all the education, experience and skills she has acquired over the past the 25 years — that, and the aspect of university culture that encourages critical thinking and open-mindedness.
“Having followed news stories at Dalhousie over the past couple of years, I was encouraged that people were coming forward and challenging existing power structures and cultural climates, and that the university appeared to be listening and responding,” she says. “I saw this as an opportunity to contribute and help create the culture of the ombuds office, while contributing to an overall culture of respect.”
Within the ombuds office itself, Diane says a culture of respect is about confidentiality, fairness and the simple act of listening. While she will have a hand in recommending changes to university policies and procedures, she believes that by listening to the concerns of students she can help prevent and address issues before they become problems.
“I understand that university is, in and of itself, inherently stressful at times, and feeling powerless and treated unfairly in this environment can be an intense and emotional time,” she says. “I enjoy the challenge of assisting people to move through those emotions to a place where they feel empowered to use their voice and actively work towards a resolution.
“It costs nothing to listen, but it can drastically alter an outcome for the better.”
The Office of the Ombudsperson is located in room 409 of the Student Union Building, and can be found online at dal.ca/ombudsperson.
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