Pitt pandemic heroes: Ombudsperson a calming presence for grad students


Since March, the basic job duties of Philippa Carter haven’t changed, but some of the questions she gets sure have shifted.

Carter is ombudsperson — chief troubleshooter — for graduate students in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, as well as director of diversity initiatives and academic affairs in the Office of Graduate Studies.

Woman in Pitt maskWhen she holds sessions — once luncheons, now virtual — with groups of under-represented graduate students to connect with and mentor them, some of their concerns have now shifted. They still have issues with departmental procedures and whether they’re going to be able to meet the milestones necessary for graduation. But now she’s also been asked for advice on keeping vegetables longer, so the students can avoid too many trips to the grocery store.

“Being a calming presence for the graduate students, and even working with my co-workers, has changed,” she says. When arriving at work, she used to trade an enthusiastic “Good morning!” with each one in person, she recalls. Now she sends them a good morning email every day.

“Yes, this is the new normal, but I’m still going to be the loud — virtual — version of myself,” Carter says. “And they all respond.”

She still prefers impromptu meetings to solve problems or answer questions. “I’ve found out that Teams is an easy way for you to do that,” rather than holding Zoom meetings on a schedule, she says. “I’ve been trying to use all of the available technology to its fullest advantage, to reassemble my work environment at home, prior to the pandemic.”

Carter has been at Pitt since 1989, first in the registrar’s office, moving up through graduate administration in the English department and on to the Dietrich dean’s office, culminating in her current position.

Part of her once-and-future work was traveling to graduate student fairs, promoting the Dietrich school’s programs to under-represented students in particular. Now the virtual version of her job can have her up for a 5 a.m. start to such a fair in Indonesia. And she still helps departments review new program proposals and the needs of various concentrations, majors and minors.

Pre-pandemic, Carter was a regular at the University Club on Fridays as part of its book club. That has continued on Zoom once a month, including a bring-your-own-drinks-and-snacks happy hour with a core group of previous participants.

“It’s important for people during a pandemic to maintain those social networks,” she says, “and allow those relationships still to continue and to flourish at this time, since socializing helps people. We’re still trying to preserve those special University relationships.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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