Milena Christopher spends her time meeting with students who took a “different course in life”—whether returning to school after serving in the military, raising a child or experiencing marital issues.
The stress of college, work and other factors may lead to a divorce for some non-traditional students, along with their mainstream peers. Christopher is there to help them through that process.
She began working in the Office of the Attorney for Students seven years ago while running her own private practice. Her university work is in a branch of the Dean of Students’ office and provides services as part of the student fees included in tuition.
“We don’t represent student clients in court,” Christopher said. “What we do is counsel them. With around 34,000 students, there’s no way we could go to court.”
Christopher said being able to help students or families going through crises is important to her.
“You’ll find most attorneys don’t want to do family law because it’s very emotionally driven,” Christopher said. “It’s often very difficult to stay detached. If I can help (clients) through legal aspects, then that’s what I can do.”
About 1,500 students will use the office this year, and Christopher will counsel approximately 400 of them, said Shannon Fitzpatrick, director of the Office of the Attorney for Students.
Christopher said family law and custody cases are probably the third-highest area of business the office sees. Landlord-tenant disputes and criminal cases are the top two kinds of issues they help students resolve.
Christopher said she is the only attorney for students who specializes in divorce or separation.
“It’s like a physician,” Fitzpatrick said. “You can be a general practitioner or have something you focus on. It makes sense for her to help students because she has her own practice. She’s a good counselor and a very good listener.”
Christopher said she commonly works with suits affecting parent-child relationships, which usually involve couples who aren’t going through divorce but want a separation. The suits involve issues such as determining paternity, examining custody arrangements and arranging child support and possession schedules.
The office has an agreement in place with the Hays County Dispute Resolution Center, which offers mediation and resolution services free to the students referred there. Christopher said.
According to the center’s website, half-day mediation would cost $50 per party otherwise.
Tera Cleland, executive director of the center, said the clients always have positive things to say about Christopher and the mediation services they received because of her referrals. The center has received 12 referrals from Christopher this year.
Christopher said she refers clients to the Hays-Caldwell Women’s Center. Christopher said sometimes her clients are involved in abusive relationships. She counsels such clients on how to guard themselves and go through the legal system for protective services.
Fitzpatrick said students fill out a survey after every visit. She said the survey results received for Christopher are “consistently top-notch.”
“She speaks very kindly,” Cleland said. “She makes you feel like she is listening to you and cares about what you’re saying.”