How to Find Your Footing in Assessment in 9 Easy Steps

How to Find Your Footing in Assessment in 9 Easy Steps

Image credit: A Little Bit Meg




This month marks my first full year as a Student Affairs assessment professional. In reflecting back on the year, so many things I love about this work were front and center. But it’s not completely uplifting. Imposter syndrome still knocks me off my feet. There is still so much I don’t know – although part of me is cool with that. I hope I’m always learning new things! One thing is clear to me: I am fortunate to have the best team of supportive colleagues. But in thinking about this first year I kept thinking, what if I didn’t? How isolating the year could have been without their incredible support. This post is about my first year doing this work. It’s about the learning and the growing and the conceptualizing of my new identity as an assessment professional. It is a conversation that honestly, I wish we talked about more.

Quick disclaimer: What you’re about to read is my journey, but it is my journey alone. Everyone is on their own career path. Despite the name of this post, the experiences shared within it are unique to my own first year in our field. It is possible (read: I hope) that some of the feelings around career transitions will resonate. Starting in a new role is the ultimate form of vulnerability. More than anything I have wanted what I imagine so many of us want: to do a good job. I have made mistakes, of course I have. But it’s a process. I’m learning. And to quote my UC Boulder colleague and stellar writer, Sydney Kayne, the idea is really about: “giving oneself grace in this big, new, sometimes daunting, field throughout the process.” To that I say: Yes, 1000%.


Step 1: Admit you know nothing. Accept it. Move on.

You come to Student Affairs assessment with 11 years of student-facing experience in other areas of higher education. This seems like it should translate beautifully. It’s just a matter of learning all about Student Affairs, right? But then, you have so much to learn. The nuances, the diverse functional areas. You’ll remember that being humble is a good thing. You remind yourself of this daily. It’s okay to not know everything, but is it? In your last role you were an expert. People came to YOU with questions. You are no longer the expert; you’re the novice.

You will talk with your new colleague about this. He will listen, as the kind soul that he is, and he will tell you about something a friend of his said, that having a new job is embarrassing. Yes, you will think, That’s it! This is embarrassing. You’ll wonder why we don’t talk about this more?

Step 2: Get in the Weeds. Realize you’re there, then regroup.


In another life you waited tables. Through college and grad school, the service industry was your livelihood. It has been more than a decade since you took off your serving apron for the last time, and yet, suddenly you are being woken up by nightmares of being in the weeds. 

In your dreams you are grabbing complex drink orders for two 8-tops sat simultaneously when the hostess tells you they just sat two other parties in your section. Meanwhile the details of those drink orders - which you failed to write down because you incorrectly believed you were a pro - are fading by the minute. You will wake up in a cold sweat and try to remind yourself that you do not, in fact, work in the food service industry anymore. 

These dreams, you will recognize, are the manifestation of you trying to do too much too fast. The irony: no one, I repeat no one expects this of you. Your boss tells you not to stress, that learning is part of the process. And you know that she means it. This is 100% on you, a stress of your own making. You will laugh at your absurdity, but tell no one because, you know, embarrassing (see step 1).

Step 3. Find your people

Five months into your new role, your team will be called into a meeting to discuss an impact project for the Veteran Services team. You will instantly get excited but will try to play it cool in the room. You want this project. You are wrapping up a similar project for another team in the division that started before you arrived. The chance to do it again but from the very beginning and on your own? A chance to see what you can do? It’s an alluring proposition. You will offer to take this on. It’s agreed. This one is yours. 

Step 4. Go hard for this team. Make ‘em proud


… But do it in ways that they care about. That 50-page report you ultimately write? Cool. Your boss (because she’s a wonderful human) will read the whole thing. But your friends in Veteran Services? Nah, and honestly, do you blame them? You’ll remember that you’re trying to forge relationships here. You want this to be meaningful, something they can use. 

You’ll write that report, but you’ll also create the dashboard and infographic. The dashboard goes on their website. The infographic submitted with their Annual Report. Your colleagues are happy. You will find yourself describing this project to anyone who will listen. You sound self-important and possibly obnoxious, but the people in your life are good and they will humor you. What they don’t know is that this feels like your first big win. There are many feelings around completing this project, but chief among them: relief.

Step 5. Take stock. Rebrand yourself.

Your team will be asked to present to a professional organization. You will each deliver a breakout session on an assessment topic of your choosing. You’ll hear yourself openly discussing the elements of storytelling and offer to deliver a session around telling stories with data. When you sit down to create this presentation you’ll find that you have so much you want to say. 

As you prepare, you will remember your husband telling you about the Hedgehog Concept. He explained it as a leadership strategy that involves finding the one thing you can do that sets you apart, a combination of passion and skill. 

Upon first learning this you will wonder, what do I do that makes me stand out? Now, suddenly, you have an answer. You are “the storyteller.” This feels good. Finally, you think, That creative writing degree is paying off.

Step 6: Market your unique services

You lean into storytelling. You read books about storytelling. The kind of books that film or fiction writing students might be assigned in their MFA programs. Books like Story by Robert McKee and Story Genius by Lisa Cron, but you also return to old loves like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. You will inhale these books. You’ll take all the notes. You will want to understand story elements as deeply as you can. And also:

You will have two impact projects under your belt. You are now the impact project person - and that will feel pretty great. Your boss will suggest adding these kinds of projects to the team’s portfolio. You’ll marvel at how significant this feels, and then enthusiastically get on board.

Step 7. Face your mortality. You are no super human.

Multiple projects come at once, each with different challenges. Feeling overly confident, you will jump right in. You’ll make mistakes. Those mistakes generate confusion for you followed by a descent into self-doubt.

But wait, you can do this! This is project-based work. It can be done. You’ll get a whiteboard and write out a timeline. You’ll create an honest-to-goodness-To-Do list with actual check boxes. Naturally, you will add the things you’ve already done for that surge of dopamine when you immediately check the box. On this list you will add every detail, no matter how minor. Things like “draft email”. The granularity of these details will shock people who come into your office. Ignore them. Do you.

Step 8. Write the way you were taught in grad school. Then ruthlessly edit.

Your fear of incompetence will have you writing the kind of text that only a dissertation chair could love. You will refer to yourself as “the researcher,” but come on, who is reading this stuff? You’ll write that really terrible first-draft just as Anne Lamott told you to do. When you read it back to yourself, the issues will be glaring. 

You’ll revise, revise, revise. You will remember advice you heard once about writing to your parents and this will resonate. You will begin opening drafts of reports and starting with “Dear Dad.” This seems to work. You will begin writing clearer.

You will ask your 9-year-old to look at a dashboard. When you ask her to describe what she sees, she will ask you important questions like: what is first-generation? You’ll realize you need to be clearer here, too.

Step 9. Breathe. You’re doing it. You’re really doing it. References.

It’s May. You are closing in on the end of your first year when the email comes, the one that tells you that you have been voted one of the Campus Partners of the Year by your colleagues. You will cry in the parking lot of your son’s daycare as you read the email. Through tears you will read the words “extremely instrumental” and you will think, I’m actually doing it. 

You have clawed your way through the muck of imposter syndrome – okay, who are you kidding, you are still clawing your way through it. Really, does imposter syndrome end? - but you’re making progress. You’re useful. Your work matters. Should you have known this all along? Yes. You have always felt valuable to your team. You know that they see you, that they appreciate you. You realize that it’s been you all along. You are the person doubting you. No one else. 

Here you will take a deep breath. You will return to your white board and take stock of what can be accomplished today. You’ll realize you have accomplished a lot in this first year, even as you still have much to learn. This thought might have been overwhelming a year ago, but right now? Right now it feels like coming up for air.


Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap and others don’t. HarperCollins Publishers. (Re: Hedgehog Concept)

Cron, L. (2016). Story genius: How to use brain science to go beyond outlining and write a riveting novel. Ten Speed Press.

Lamott, A. (1994). Bird by bird. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

McKee, R. (1997). Story: Substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting. ReganBooks.


Published by Jordan Bullington-Miller, Ed.D., SAAL Blog Team member and Research Associate for Student Affairs Research and Assessment at UNC Charlotte


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