‘El Agua es la Vida’: Going with the Flow as an Assessment Pro

‘El Agua es la Vida’: Going with the Flow as an Assessment Pro

Photo credit: Renee Delgado-Riley

‘El agua es la vida,’ means ‘water is the life.’ Thus, water is a critical element for sustaining life. It is our most precious resource and we cannot control it and must leave it to Mother Nature. For generations, my ancestors lived off the land in New Mexico and water was essential to their survival and would determine how brutal the winter would be based on their harvest season, which is directly related to the presence of water. Water determined their life for that year.


In good and bad years, my ancestors went with the flow. You see, they endured droughts and floods, and had to manage their farmlands and thus determined how much food they would have to survive the winter. Have you ever noticed that water takes on its own path and is carried by the momentum? Next time you are by a river, pay attention to the flow.


What does the analogy of water flow have to do with assessment or assessment professionals?

There is much out of our control in terms of assessment resources in our profession and sometimes we have to just go with the flow, similar to water, carried by the momentum. But this doesn’t mean throwing in the towel, losing our passion, or our fight, but instead, being more strategic and agile about how we utilize and lead assessment efforts on our campuses. And more importantly, it is about how we take care of ourselves as professionals in terms of work-life balance and putting ourselves first. Essentially, it is about optimizing the access to ‘water’ to nourish us as human beings in order to do our work as our best selves.

The Landscape

Public institutions across the U.S. have been facing a reduction in state funds and thus a majority of college costs have now become more of a burden for students and their families to absorb. Enrollment trends are down nationwide and could be grim for the near future, thus affecting higher education budgets whether public or private. In addition, such trends have left institutional leadership to manage a drought-like environment with very scarce resources. This may be placing more pressure on assessment offices and assessment professionals to support data-informed decision-making, return on investment projects, and overall impact studies.


SA Assessment has been around for many years, however it still does not seem to have adequate support. The structure of SA Assessment offices varies and there is a lack of consistency across the national stage. Essentially, SA assessment doesn’t have its ‘reservoir of water’ to have optimal levels of efficiency, but instead just enough to survive, unless you are lucky enough to live in a water-rich environment.


So how do we go with the flow is we barely have enough water to survive?

1: Accept the Things I Cannot Change

When I first started in SA Assessment as a trained researcher, I was excited to begin investigating the impact of SA programming on learning, development and student success outcomes (e.g., retention, etc.). I was excited to translate this information in the form of reports and presentations to our colleagues, academic partners, funding agencies, donors, etc. I was also excited to help SA programs validate their awesome programs and develop action plans to improve their impact through the integration of assessment results. In addition, understanding the process of assessment and feedback on administrative, operational, and programmatic outcomes with the goal to be more strategic was intoxicating.

I’m still excited, but as a naive, first-generation scholar, I am disappointed. I am disappointed that more is required of SA Assessment. Moreover, the level of resources to support the demand for SA assessment efforts are not present. For example, there is a strong need to provide reliable and valid evidence, but that threshold is lowered due to the lack of capacity we have. I am even more disappointed that there is minimal investment in what we do.

We are in a drought with limited water to survive.

The structure of  SA Assessment varies and there is a lack of consistency across the national stage. A 2014, Student Affairs Assessment Leaders (SAAL) survey noted that over half of respondents indicated their annual assessment budget was under $50,000. Most assessment operations are a 1-person shop managing the various assessment and research projects. We’re going full throttle. A worry of mine is the impact this has on our staff morale and overall staff well-being.

We are the most important characters in our life stories and can’t afford for these stories to go untold due to the constraints of our organizational and work priorities. Often, we become mere supporting characters and I worry we will burn out quicker. We have to become experts not just in assessment and research, but in the many topics of our diverse divisions. Divisions of Student Life are all organized so uniquely. So, we must accept what we cannot change and that the level of resources our institutions will provide  political culture surrounding higher education. No matter how hard we fight, our key as well as the decision-makers will have the final say in what allocations will be sent our way, but the work demands will not change and in fact they may increase.

Does this then give us the pass to wallow in our swallows? No, in fact, it’s a sign to work more strategically.

2: Self-Care

So, how do you work strategically? It is critical to be more strategic about your projects and do your best to leverage with other units, departments and colleagues across campus and within the community. If food security programming and its impact is something that the Dean of Students is working on, but we know that those working with student organizations may be interested as well, this would be an opportune way to collaborate. It would support both areas of the Division and it would then reduce the burden on you, the assessment pro. Not everything needs to be written as a research plan, but why not develop a few robust research plans and use those to write for research grants. Grant writing is a great professional skill to learn and chances are your sponsored research offices offer training or have personnel present to assist in the process. Check out the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) and their postsecondary grant opportunities. Now, you are probably thinking...oh no, “more work!”


So carried by the momentum, similar to water, does not mean giving up your fight for assessment. Instead it means being the strongest advocate for the importance of investing in assessment, taking a different approach, leveraging opportunities for even incremental progress, and focusing on what you can control so as to optimize that perspective. Your personal wellbeing will thank you. We need to stop going to the same river bed to get our water, eventually they dry out. We need to think innovatively and find other ways to nourish ourselves and offices.

Working strategically means that you are prioritizing self-care and recognizing that you are human and you have limits. Infusing strategy into one’s work is only one part of self-care when it comes to being an assessment pro. The other part involves you...the person on the other end bringing this work to fruition. Leading assessment and research efforts can sometimes feel like a ship captain trying to navigate the seas of change.,river+bed,colorado/

Hayley Hobson once said, “Trust in your ability to navigate treacherous waters. Whatever it takes to make the shift, do it. You are a master of your life, and you possess the power to choose how the story will end at any moment.” This quote continues to give me the hope, passion and motivation to dedicate to the work. I am the first to admit that I am a workaholic and that I often push myself to extremes to ensure the job gets done that it exceeds expectations, because I believe in assessment. The passion I have burns strong and sometimes it can burn me out to the point where it can be difficult to sleep due to all the things running through my mind that need to get done. Keep your passion for assessment burning strong, but remember to take time for yourself and engage in something that will provide you balance. Whether it is meditation, fitness routines, hobbies or just spending time with people in your life. You must consciously make the effort to do this for your own health. Take time to write down two or three things you will actively dedicate time to this month to for self-care.

3: Don’t let the Naysayers Get You Down

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education Article by Erik Gilbert, Assessment Is an Enormous Waste of Time is a perfect example of dealing with naysayers. What do I mean by naysayers? I mean those that always seem to have a cynical comment about the value of assessment and thus make our jobs more interesting and often times challenging. Sometimes because we are spread so thin professionally, our first reaction to these naysayers may be not our most professional. But what we should do instead is quench our thirst by taking a deep breath before reacting.  In this article, his definition of assessment is very limited. He is equating assessment only with learning outcomes. What about development? What about administrative outcomes? What about operational and program review outcomes? Not all assessment is focused on student learning.

This is not holistic assessment nor culturally responsive. Assessment is not just about student learning. Obviously our students’ learning is important, but the success of our institutions and how we measure the work we and our colleagues do exceed far beyond the label of ‘student learning’. Sometimes all you can do when seeing articles such as these or hearing cynicism about our work is just breathe, take a step back and reflect. This is an important step in allowing us to disconnect from the negative energy of these naysayers and focus on our personal sanity.

You see, we cannot control others’ attitudes and comments about our work, but we can control our own attitudes and our reactions. So why not let us be carried by the momentum and control what we can and continue to impact change in the ways we can through assessment? Assessment professionals often battle cynicism on a regular basis, but we must listen to this feedback and continue with our processes. It is a hard fight and sometimes depending on context can feel like it’s an uphill battle that will never end. What I can say is that we must balance all this otherwise it will negatively impact our attitude, which may interfere with our already tough job. I am not advocating for staying in an idealist framework, but instead maintaining a positive attitude, preaching proactive mantras and surrounding ourselves with people who optimize this perspective.

Photo credit: Renee Delgado-Riley

Personal Take

So go with the flow... and accept the things you can’t change, practice self-care and don’t let the naysayers get you down.

We may need more support not just for what we do as assessment professions, specifically the financial investment in growing our offices and the consistency in those offices. Some SA Assessment offices are well resourced, while others are not, while some do not even have a formal structure. This isn’t equitable, however, remember to just breathe and focus on self-care and do your best to work strategically through the process.

Providing the water for the growth of our organization is critical, but often this may be out of our control. ‘Agua es la vida,’ even in the context of higher education and let’s do the best to navigate this drought together by not forgetting about the assessment pro on the other end!

Have you made time for self-care this week? What are some things on your campus that you cannot change that impact your work? Make a list of these things. Then list possible solutions to these things you have direct control over that you may be able to address instead.


Renee Delgado-Riley, University of Oregon

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