Traveling to Kansas City for the NASPA Student Success in Higher Education (SSHE) Conference in late June, I was reminded by numerous people that “Barbeque Sauce” was what I should be seeking during my stay. I wouldn’t say I’m a BBQ lover, but as a diehard Ted Lasso fan, I do enjoy the reference. And, Lasso’s, “Be curious, not judgmental” remains a great motto for all of us as assessment professionals. I was fortunate to be able to spend three days with like minded folks at the conference, returning home with new ideas and a renewed sense of community.
If you haven’t ever attended, the annual NASPA SSHE Conference combines three smaller conferences into one concurrent event:
- NASPA Assessment, Planning, and Data Analytics Conference
- NASPA Dismantling Systemic Barriers to Student Success Conference
- NASPA First-generation Student Success Conference
Attendees from all three of the conferences participate together in the keynote speakers, networking events, and a vendor exhibit space, but have distinct conference tracks for educational sessions. However, you can attend sessions from any track. As you might have guessed, I spent most of my time in the Assessment track, but it was great to interact with other Student Affairs professionals focused programmatically on supporting equitable outcomes for historically underrepresented and minoritized college students. Here were a few highlights and takeaways from my time:
- SAAL members are contributing innovative and meaningful assessment strategies at their universities. I was inspired to learn from my colleagues about division-wide assessment projects to assess student leader development (UNC Charlotte), student wellbeing (Texas A&M) and student noncognitive development (James Madison University).
- Assessment professionals are helping to provide guidance and important perspective to campus and division leaders on how to measure student engagement, retention, persistence. Often leading the conversation on campuses, creative dashboards and visualizations (University of Florida and University of South Carolina) have become critical tools for data-informed decision making and better understanding student outcomes.
- Assessment professionals are still working hard to strengthen the culture of evidence on their campuses, finding new ways to expand capacity for Student Affairs professionals and build data literacy skills. I was able to lead a roundtable session on this topic where we shared our best strategies, such as partnering with Academic Affairs and creating an assessment committee or hosting recognition events.. I also was inspired to hear the story of building an assessment department and division-wide initiative from the group up at a multi-campus system (Harrisburg Area Community College).
- Through the conference keynote speakers, I was reminded of the necessary (and undervalued) contribution that Tribal Colleges and Historically Black College and Universities (HBCUs) continue to provide for the access and the success of BIPOC students. I appreciated that they challenged our thinking and their inclusion in the conference was particularly timely considering the Supreme Court decision about affirmative action happened just days prior.
- Which leads me to the aspect of my time there that I cannot stop thinking about, which is the impact of recent state legislation on the DEI work on our campuses. I will admit being out in California, that I had been following the news, but did not know how deep the impact has been to some of our colleagues. I had somehow naively thought that it would be only those working in identity-based advocacy centers, or teaching DEI courses that were going to be directly affected. I send solidarity and support to our assessment colleagues who are having to rethink their work and develop strategies to keep equity front and center to assessment. As we all realize, our colleagues will try their best to do the work, but ultimately the greatest disservice and impact will be to our students. I would challenge those of us currently working in states where this is not an imminent issue to stay engaged and find ways to support our colleagues. It could be easy to feel like what is happening is far from us as we focus on our many priorities, but I believe that we all are interconnected and it will take all of us to preserve our core values.
On a lighter note, my favorite part of any conference is reconnecting with old friends and getting to make new connections with professionals I haven’t yet encountered. We were able to host a small, but very dynamic, gathering of SAAL members one evening discussing a wide-range of topics; on everything from what we were navigating in our roles, to pop culture, to where to find the best taco (differing opinions on this, but consensus it is NOT in KC).
One other final observation: every assessment breakout session was packed. I mean standing room only, and many of the sessions in the other tracks had assessment related content. I believe this reflects a shift in Student Affairs – and that our work is valued and needed more than ever. I maintain that assessment professionals are the most intelligent, creative, hardworking, politically savvy, dedicated, yet humble, members in the field of Student Affairs and Higher Education. As a responsible assessment practitioner, I will confess that I have no hard evidence for this fact, but I’d be willing to take that bet any day. I left feeling inspired, motivated, and very proud to be a member of this SAAL community.
Oh, and I did get to eat at Jack Stack Barbeque….and it was honestly amazing. Well done KC.
Dr. Megan Bell
VP of SAAL Community Development and Engagement
Cal State Northridge