TAMPA — The couch and armchair in the lobby of student ombudsman Samuel Wright's office are piled high with thank-you cards, trinkets, plaques and other tokens of appreciation as he prepares to retire.
But in the center of the bustling University of South Florida campus, they were once places for students to unload their concerns.
Wright retires today after 27 years at USF, where he served as the student ombudsman — a position that he says changed with every student who walked into his office.
Some were homeless. Others had issues with professors or courses. Some struggled to pay for tuition and books while paying their parents' mortgage. They came to the ombudsman's office when they couldn't figure out where else to go.
"If students have concerns, they want to talk to you right then and there," Wright said. "They don't want to wait a week. A lot of what they're doing is time sensitive."
Sometimes, Wright would solve their troubles by giving them small stipends from an emergency relief fund. Other times, he would just listen.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, who directs the Office of the Student Ombudsman, has known Wright for more than 30 years.
"He did a job that went many, many times above and beyond the call of duty," Miller said. "When they came in his office, he treated those students like they were his own kids."
Wright first came to the university in 1985 after leaving a job in Palm Beach County as a Head Start director and moving with his then-fiancee to Tampa.
He first joined USF as an adviser to minority student organizations. The job didn't pay much, he said, but he liked working with students and stayed for eight months, before taking a nonprofit job in Tampa.
He didn't like nonprofit work much, he said, so he came back to USF, this time as director of multicultural admissions, where his job was to recruit minority students to the university. At the time, he said, only 3 percent of USF students were African-American.
"We had no football program, and many students had not heard of USF," he said. "When you said 'University of South Florida', many people thought it was down in Miami.
"Some students thought the school was an all-black school since I was a black recruiter … USF was the best-kept secret in those days."
But soon, Wright said he began to worry whether the university was providing students with adequate resources to keep them in school after they were recruited.
After working in various positions at USF, Wright began researching the role of a student ombudsman.
Miller was initially appointed to the role, but Wright said the university soon realized it needed someone to be there for students almost 24/7.
Each case brought new struggles, Wright said, but solving them was what made each situation rewarding.
"Sometimes, students are at a point where they can't see their errors or any resolve to their issue, and they see the worst side of situations," he said. "Because I'm 59 years and a half now, have a little gray hair and life experiences under my belt, I see things a little differently. When they think it's the end of the world, it's really not."
Miller said Wright would sometimes offer "tough love" advice, but other times offered soft counsel. Once, he found a homeless student a house.
Wright, who lives in Tampa, said he will continue to work after leaving USF, though he is unsure what his plans are now.
"I want to stop and kind of get an epiphany and get some kind of revelation as to what my next chapter should look like," he said.
When Wright leaves, the office will shut its doors, too. The duties of the student ombudsman will be absorbed by the dean for students.
As he packs away his office, Wright said he will cherish the memories of the thousands of students who came through over the years, the "people who became eagles" after he helped them find "wings."
"I have not been the most blessed financially by being at the university," he said. "But in terms of memories, I would say I'm one of the richest persons that has ever lived in the universe."