A friend of mine came up with the term “ombuds tourist” when I was telling her about my attempt to visit as many ombuds offices in the US as I could. Between November 2017 and February 2018, I took up the quest to find an answer to a seemingly simple question: Why is working in an office where people bring their anger, frustration, despair, bitterness, and tears so attractive? I’d like to share my journey with readers of The Independent Voice, as I believe they might find it interesting and useful as they consider their work as ombuds or paths to the profession.
My journey truly began in January of 2014 in Hungary when I started my master’s degree in leadership and management, specializing in organizational mediation. It was like love at first sight. I took two mediation classes every semester for those two years, and each time I became more committed to mediation. The topic of my master’s thesis was project mediation, and my hypothesis was that the success of a project depends on hidden conflicts. Based on my analysis of interviews I conducted for that project, I concluded that use of mediation techniques would significantly reduce the harm of potential conflicts and project damages. This caught some attention even in Hungary where, maybe due to history, people do not trust that any third party can be impartial and neutral. Consequently, the recommendation in my thesis was that project managers should improve mediation skills.
During my graduate studies, I learned about the Julius Rezler Foundation, which supports Hungarian students to study abroad in the United States. I applied and won the scholarship in 2017. Winning the scholarship made me the happiest person in the world because my two dreams came true at the same time: to learn more about mediation and to better understand American culture. I am very grateful for the scholarship which allowed me to study alternative dispute resolution at the University of New Mexico (UNM). During my studies at UNM, the mediation instructor, Anne Lightsey, was kind enough to introduce me to the Ombuds Office. Participating in her class was one of the best training experiences I have had. She created the safest atmosphere during the training, with her attitude and competence, and demonstrated her good and bad experiences with a lot of examples. As a result, everybody felt safe enough to try it themselves and make mistakes.
After finishing my semester at UNM, I went back to my home country with the aim to find out how an academic ombuds office works. That was when one of my professors recommended a Hungarian competition that focused on alternative dispute resolution. He convinced me to apply to this competition because of my American experience. I wrote a study of conflict resolution with the Ombuds Office where I described the U.S. academic ombuds system in comparison to the Hungarian ombuds system. In Hungary, we mostly use classical ombudsmen who are “typically appointed by a legislative body to represent the public with concerns of the public with regards to the conduct of governmental agencies; they conduct formal investigations.” I won the first place at Hungarian Financial Arbitration Board Arbitration competition in 2017. After that, I had more questions in my mind about academic ombuds office work. For instance, what does the ombuds role mean? What is the difference between an ombudsperson and a mediator? These were some of the questions that I wanted to find answers to during my studies and journey.
How did I become an ombuds tourist?
My strategy was to visit and meet as many people as I could and to conduct semi-structured interviews on the basic questions about ombuds. I created a questionnaire of six questions that focused on the ombuds practice and the personal motivations of the interviewees. My goal was to visit a number of ombuds offices to see how they worked, what their process was, and what the differences or similarities were between offices.
I wanted to make connections, network, and of course tell everybody that I am looking for a job. I thought the job search was going to be easy, but unfortunately it was not. After hearing several stories from people and receiving multiple job rejections, I realized how hard it is to find a job in this field. Instead of being depressed, I tried to enjoy this journey and make it productive.
I was in the United States for eighty-nine days. During this time, I visited eleven offices, interviewed sixteen people, mainly in California but also in the Midwest and on the West Coast. All of my interviews were one-on-one, and most of them were in person.
What did I find?
Among the 16 respondents, seven had three other people in their office, four had another person in the