The only bad data you can have is the data you don't do anything about

The only bad data you can have is the data you don't do anything about

Hello SAAL Blog readers! My name is Sophie Tullier and I recently joined the SAAL blog team after starting a new role as the Director of Assessment, Data Analytics, and Research at the University of Delaware. Being new to the Director role, I thought it would be a great time to reach out to others who have been doing this work for a while. Given SAALs mission and vision center, in part, on the creation of a thriving community, I thought I would share with you a bit of what I learn from these conversations as well as some information about the humans in these roles, the faces behind the listserv emails so to speak.


Each conversation is an hour long, so I’m not going to share all of what we talked about. I’ll share a bit about who these individuals are, some of their thoughts and advice, and hopefully give you some new ideas to ponder in your own work, with my own take-aways following the recap of our conversation.


Ellissa Brooks Nelson (she, her, hers)

Divisional Director, Student Affairs Research & Assessment

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

In her current role: ~2 years

Also serves as: SAAL’s Vice President of Profession Advancement


Tell me about your journey into student affairs assessment. How did you get here?

I definitely stumbled into student affairs and assessment. Originally, I wanted to work for the FBI, but then once I learned about all the basic training you'd have to do, and it's like, "Well, that's clearly not for me."


I did end up working in a Sheriff's Office doing administrative stuff. One day I was actually talking to one of the detectives and she was telling me about a case of a little girl where her dad tried to kill her, and that all of the detectives, she was scared of all of them because of how big they were, and through those conversations I learned about play therapy. Soon after, I applied for a counseling program with a play therapy component. I got through all my coursework, and then I did my practicum and internships. That's when I realized I couldn't do that long-term. 


They have the term emotionally burned out is what happens to counselors. That wasn't me. I was just emotionally too attached, where I was crying every day. I just felt I had so much empathy for my clients. So it was just really hard, and there was no other type of counseling I wanted to do. I was about to graduate, realizing it’s not what I wanted to do, and I needed to figure it out. I was also doing a graduate assistantship with a faculty member. I really loved it and I really loved my research methods class even though it’s just not one of those classes that you're supposed to admit you like.


 I ended up in a job where a lot of the work I did was program evaluation with nonprofits, where their focus was really on families and children. So my interest areas were still around the research I was doing, but I wasn't directly involved with people. So I was still able to make an impact without the emotional piece being part of it. So I loved that work, and then I probably would have stayed there forever, but the executive director stepped down.


Over the next few years, Ellissa held a few different roles while pursuing her PhD. She was able to work in educational and government settings where she felt like she was making an impact and learning skills like coding, programming, and strategic planning which she knew she would need in any future leadership role. While she was learning important skills in these roles, they weren’t a perfect fit, leading her to apply for an institutional research position at UNC Charlotte. Although she didn’t get that role, not too long after someone who had interviewed her reached out about a new position that had been posted and encouraged her to apply.


When I read the position description, I was like, "This is perfect. This is everything I want to do."  So I applied for the position, and then that's how I ended back at UNC Charlotte. It's one of those, I've been on campus either as staff or student for 20 years. I remember when I first left thinking, "What did I do? Why did I do that?" So, once I got back, it totally felt like I was back at home. I've been here ever since, and then I got promoted into the role I'm in now almost two years ago.


What advice do you have for me as a new director or someone new to this field?

The very first thing I would do, and I did this coming in when I came in as senior research associate, I did a listening tour. It’s an opportunity to start developing those relationships. That is the most important thing you're going to do in your role. You've got to develop those relationships and they have to trust you if you're going to be successful. If they do not trust you, you're not going to be successful in that role. I started off with all department heads in the division. Most of those meetings were scheduled for about an hour, and almost all of them went well over that hour of just learning more about how they felt supported by the office up to that point, and what they needed from us moving forward because that helped me figure out things that we might want to consider implementing that maybe we weren't. By having those initial conversations, that really helped start building those relationships that I now have throughout the division. But I would say that's the most important thing, and then to really take everything you heard and start turning that into action items.


The other thing is, so our vice chancellor said that he wanted all departments to be doing assessment plans and that this was going to be a regular practice. We made the mistake of assuming that folks knew what that meant. So we created a template, because why not? And then we set a deadline for departments to submit their assessment plans, and they did. All of them met that deadline. They submitted an assessment plan, and I started reviewing them and quickly I realized that for many of them, the feedback was going to be, "You need to start over." So I said to my boss and I was like, "I don't like this feedback, and I don't feel good giving it, and I don't think we should. I think we need to ask for a year to do professional development with staff and teach them how to do assessment." I think too, sometimes staff might feel that there's something wrong with them because they don't know how to do assessment, but the approach should be, they shouldn't know how to do assessment. It's not something they learn in class, so it's not an expectation. I think that by not having that wall up, that helps really get them bought into the process.

I built out the curriculum on my own. Really, we did assessment learning workshops, is what we called them, and they were in alignment with the assessment plan cycle. In those, we never talked about theory. Our folks do not care about theory. I didn't make it feel academic. I made it feel very practical, and that really resonated with them. What we would also do is intentionally put them at tables with other departments that we knew they didn't interact with much. But that was a way to start building some new relationships in the division, and they loved that.


When I first got to student affairs, I had a number of people in leadership roles saying, "Well, the staff aren't going to do assessment because they don't want to have to share the bad results." I was like, "What do you mean bad results?" They were like, "What if something's not working?" I said, "Well, that's why you do assessment." You don't do assessment just to show how great you are. That's not the point. The point is to identify those areas where you could do better, and then identify strategies to get better. So, any time I get in front of our staff, I remind them of that like, "If you're doing an assessment to show how good you are, you're wasting your time and you're wasting my time." I've not ever had a problem with our vice chancellor disciplining a department because their assessment results show that they could be doing better in some area, just as long as they're working towards it. The only bad data you can have is the data you don't do anything about. So as long as you're doing something about it, it's not going to be an issue. But that's hard for people to wrap their head around. But that's where the trust comes in. That's so important, and you have to make sure that leadership understands that.


What’s the biggest issue/change you are watching in the field right now?

For me, my mission is to tell our student affairs story. Essentially, at the end of the day, we're wanting to engage our students. We want our students to feel like they belong here. What does that mean? We want them to stay. Our outcome, our focus is on retention. We need to show that student affairs matters and the work we do matters, and we need to be able to show that -our staff already know that. They can see it anecdotally, but we need to be able to share it where we can go tell that story to the chancellor and it's not anecdotal. So, that's why we've been working on building a data lake. We're in our second year, but we started small just because there's tons of student affairs data. We had attempted to do this several times in the past … one time when not in my current role yet, I had a department reach out to me and say, "I'm being asked to provide 10 years of data on students that have watched a movie on campus, and I'm not sure why." That's a lot of work. So that's when we stopped and took a break, and then when I moved into this role, I started thinking about like, "How can we build a data mart?" In a previous role, we had a data warehouse, and all the data was relational, and that's what you need to be able to do predictive analytics, and that's what we needed to be able to do here.


I really wanted to first focus on the most meaningful data we could get our hands on, and that would allow me to start doing some meaningful predictive analytics while we figured out how we're going to build out the rest of it. That is, to me, the most important thing we're doing right now because that is what's going to really, truly help us tell our story. That will help inform sense of belonging, retention, graduation, time to graduation, all of those things where we can do comparisons with students that are engaged with us to those students that have never been engaged with us.


Right now we can do program to program but those students that we're comparing them against, they could be participating in another student affairs program. Or they could have last semester or last year. I want to truly be able to compare non-engaged student affairs students to engaged student affairs students. I want to be able to say, "Every semester we've engaged this many students." Can't do that yet, but we will.


What do you do in your spare time?

I wish I had spare time. I've got two boys. One is eight and the other is 12, and they both play baseball. One's on a travel team. When I'm not working, I'm either going to baseball practice or a game. Then if I have any weekends off, going to make up time with family members, so they don't get mad at me because I'm so busy. But that's all we do. I feel like it's work or kids. Whatever the kids need. But when I get stressed, I do bake therapy. That's what I call it anyway. I don't like to cook, but I like to bake. When my husband walks in and there's cakes and brownies and cookies, he knows that I'm stressed out about something. So that's my bake therapy and it helps. It's my form of self-care. And then I exercise every morning. I didn't used to be an exercise person. But some of my family members were getting older, and I was like, " When I get older, I want to be able to get on the floor with my grandchildren, if I'm lucky enough to have them, and get back up." That was really my motivator. I get up every morning and exercise. It's my date with myself.


Wowzer – do you know anyone with a more interesting story of how they’ve landed in student affairs assessment?! I love Ellissa’s path and everything she brings to her work now – it’s not always a straight line to end up where we find meaning, purpose, and a role that suits how we want to show up every day. I’m so glad that Ellissa took the path she did and ended up as a leader in our field!


I’ve done three of these conversations so far (others to hit the blog soon!), and I think Ellissa focuses on two of the main themes that I’m hearing across these conversations so far:

  1. The importance of building trust and strong relationships with others across the division (and your institutional research and information technology staff – that part of our conversation didn’t make it here!). I’ve been doing the same – always over coffee or lunch, and people in roles such as our interim AVP for Equity in Student Life, the Graduate Student Government President, or an Assistant Director in Student Conduct. Everyone has had helpful cultural and historical context to share and I’ve been able to take the time to explain my philosophy, what I’m hoping we achieve, and build excitement for the coming changes around assessment. She helped me feel better about how much money I’ve spent on coffee the last few months!
  2. What I’ve started calling in these conversations the “non-textbook” assessment – the data management, data governance, data warehouse aspects of what it means to work in student affairs assessment in 2023. Ellissa is ahead of me in terms of student affairs data warehouse integrations and it was great for me to learn from her about what she’s been able to do and how she’s approached making this work happen.

This series is meant to highlight and lift-up those who are working in assessment full-time on a campus with at least some of their time dedicated to student affairs or co-curricular assessment. Know someone you’d like to learn from featured in the series? Leave their name in a comment and I’ll do my best to connect with them!


Sophie Tullier

SAAL Blog writer and Director of Assessment, Data Analytics, & Research at the University of Delaware






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