Advocacy in Assessment: An HBCU Perspective with Britt Spears-Rhymes, M.S.

Advocacy in Assessment: An HBCU Perspective with Britt Spears-Rhymes, M.S.

Hello SAAL Blog readers! Here is the next installment of our conversation series getting to know the individuals that make up this wonderful group of Student Affairs Assessment Leaders and learning from their personal stories. I 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 role, I reached out to others to see if I could jump start my onboarding. 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 has been 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.


Britt Spears-Rhymes, M.S. (she, her, hers / they, them, theirs)

Former Assessment Professional, Full-time Doctoral Student

Howard University

Also serves as: Past faculty for ACPA’s Assessment Institute, co-author of chapter in Exemplars of Assessment in Higher Education


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

Back in my graduate assistantship, I was always asking, "It's great to have these student leaders, but what are they learning? How do we mentor their learning outside of the classroom?" My GA advisor at the time, she told me there's actually a whole subfield for that. Assessment, at that particular institution at the time was very focused on the academic side. I started working in a super traditional student affairs role, the coordinator for student events. I mentioned in my interview I was interested in assessment, and once I was in the role they asked if I wanted to serve on the Student Affairs Assessment and Research Committee. Started there, and literally, that was my last student affairs-traditional job.

From there, I moved to a membership organization where I was doing assessment for everyone. We had cohorts of different students, and we utilized the VALUE rubrics in a student affairs context. People generally know how to use them and things like that, but it was like I was putting into real-time. I actually did a SAAL Structured Conversation about that. I was having some trouble figuring out, "Do I want to go the academic route, or do I want to go the student affairs route?" I was like, "You know what? I'm going to find an area where I don't have to choose."

So that's what I did for myself in that first role there at AAC&U, then I went to Howard, which is where I am currently. I've been here for five years. So I first started in the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment and have had a couple of different roles since I’ve been here.


You work at an HBCU – what would you say is specific or different about your institutional context?

This is actually my first HBCU. I would say what's different is the emphasis. The emphasis is just completely different. I'll say acknowledgment and emphasis. And acknowledgment, I mean, when you say assessment, as far as what I've experienced campus wide, it is more along the lines of academic assessment, measuring what students are learning in the classroom.BrittQuote_HBCUs have to prove themselves

I don't think that that is any fault on the HBCUs. I think that's because HBCUs constantly have to prove themselves, and because we work in higher education you have to prove yourselves academically, right? That's the first thing: prove yourselves academically. HBCUs have to fight for their relevance when they shouldn't have to, but they do.

With student affairs at an HBCU and at a well-known one such as Howard, student affairs looks a lot different. When we have homecoming, we have P Diddy come to our homecoming. We're raking in millions as opposed to, "Oh, the class of 1983 is giving $50,000." Howard, we racked in about three million at homecoming. That is huge. So it's just a little bit different, and the learning aspect of it has not yet been captured.

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

Britt Quote: You need to have a team of people that serve as championsGet to know all of the leaders. And when I say leaders, I don't mean just the titles. So don't get friendly with only the directors, because the directors we know are not always the ones with the boots on the ground.  Who is always in the university paper as a staff member being outlined for their work in a particular area? When you think of campus life or student organizations, who is really the one making the difference? The one who is creating the new initiatives, who is creating the out-of-classroom learning experiences? For assessment to be done at its fullest capacity, you really have to have a team of people to work with you, outside of your own team.

Once you have people that are champions of assessment all over campus, it makes it much easier to do. Then you teach them or they bring in skills from other places, and then they can also teach each other. It becomes this exciting experience for the entire campus if it isn't already.

I would say my most important stakeholders are Institutional Research and the Registrar's office. Both of those because they have access to data that obviously we don't. And then finding everyone else who is responsible for assessment on top of their regular job in student affairs.  Doing all of that networking to figure out who has assessment in their responsibilities.

Then a group that people don't often look at is, of course, students, which is crazy. When I was in charge of the previous assessment committee I always made sure that we had a combination of graduate and undergraduate students on the committee. We included graduate students because assessment experience is something that these entry and mid-level roles are asking for, why are we not creating opportunities for them to get that experience?  They also give a student perspective of, "Y'all ask us too many things." Of course, we can't catch everything. It's like a fishing net, but one student may say, "Oh, well, I'm in this program, and they send out four surveys a month." Now I know I need to follow up with someone about their assessment processes.

Britt Quote: I always make a 9 month plan when I start a new job

I love that these conversations all center on the importance of networking and relationship building to get this work done. Assessment is such a fascinating role because I agree with Britt here in so many ways – so much of the work that gets done is by those without positional power and I’ve always found myself as an assessment professional knowing so many people across the division that people wouldn’t expect me to know. But you know what? The administrative specialist that manages the fraternity and sorority rosters is someone who is on my list to take out to coffee soon – that role is equally important to me as the Deputy Registrar. The one caveat I’ll share here from my own work is that in a past role, I do feel like I spent too much time with the boots on the ground staff and not enough time pushing those in the positions of power to tie the assessment work to goals and a strategic vision for their office (shoutout to Heather Strine-Pattern’s Multilevel Assessment Process). Everyone is important and plays a different role, and finding the time to build those connections, find the champions, and develop trusting relationships I have found to be so important!

Also like with any role, when you're new, you don't have to implement change immediately. Something that I always do is a nine-month plan when I start. It's a combination of showing good faith to my supervisor and whatever team that I'm on, as well as giving myself that opportunity to not try to jump in and fix things within the first month.  


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

I'm always interested in how people are using their data. We don't want to just put data in our file cabinets, whether they're the physical ones or our virtual ones at this point. I am looking at what other institutions are doing with their data, how they are reaching to other areas to utilize the data, and then secondly, not just how they're using it, how they're disseminating it, but what changes are actually coming from it. For example, if you have a Title IX survey and 43% of your students are saying that they don't feel safe, that's a big number. What are you doing about that?

Sometimes I see big things come out and I’m wondering why they aren’t talking to my office about this? Or I see something and it’s clear to me that they really needed help. I have been able to get a good amount of folks to understand that they needed to consult with us because we were the professionals in that area. I would always follow up with folks to see how people are using their results to make changes -- there's always a lot of effort into collecting the data but not always using it.

This is an issue I am trying to brainstorm how to address systematically and efficiently in my own role too. I shared that I feel like I am constantly telling people that I took graduate level coursework on how to write a survey item and that you can get a Ph.D. in how to design a survey. Just because you have access to Qualtrics does not mean you should make a survey and send it out.


I was also curious given the focus on equity-centered assessment over the past few years, what that looks like at an HBCU.

A lot of people on campuses would say, "Duh." Actually, my debut presentation when I got to Howard was along the lines of, "Just because you're an HBCU doesn't mean you're equitable." It's like, if you look at the demographics of an HBCU, they're obviously serving the students that are not being served at maybe a nearby state institution. But that doesn't mean that there are not students that experience even less privilege. For example, just because of systemic racism, your Pell Grant numbers are going to be higher at an HBCU than at a historically white institution. We could have students experiencing homelessness, they could be experiencing food insecurity at higher numbers than other what are we doing about that? That's where I approach this conversation. Then similarly, it’s still important to disaggregate our data because, yeah, 95% of the undergraduate students in the School of Education are black. What does that mean? Are they African-American? Are they African? Are they first-generation? Are they out here by themselves and their entire family is still in Nigeria? Are they Afro-Latino? Are they Caribbean? What does that look like? Is there a language barrier? What are you all doing? Disaggregate the data, make sure that you're putting all of that information there.

For some other things, an HBCU, there's an old school feel to it. People often assume that I am an undergraduate student because I do look young, I get that. That's fine. We’re still putting female and male for gender. Those are not gender, those are sexes.

We also went into a little bit the nature of the national conversation around equity-centered assessment, whose voices are centered and celebrated, and the role and importance of lifting up colleagues of color, colleagues at MSIs, and those who live and breathe equity work daily. I recently had a conversation with my colleague, our Director for Advancing Racial Equity & Inclusion about the difference between mentorship and sponsorship, and I think that was the essence of what Britt and I were discussing without using that language.


What do you do in your spare time?

Being in this grad program is a big part of my life right now – my dissertation is focused on the decolonization of education. I consider myself to be an activist in education. I use what I do every day in combination with trying to liberate my people as a Black person here in this country, and specifically an African American who has very clear roots to slavery. I know most of my family history, I have a picture in my house of my white, great-great-grandfather. So, knowing what that looks like in my family as well as in the larger American context and how to acknowledge these past transgressions but to move forward, that means acknowledging them first, not just glossing over them and trying to move forward.

Britt Quote: I am an education activistOf course, that's taxing mental and emotional work. In my spare time, I am a mom. I'm a dog mom and a human mom, a currently expecting mom, too so that is getting ready to flip my world. I have a 10-year-old and then this new baby. I also love sports. I'm a former college athlete - I used to run track, and my son plays football. I'm really into TV. I love HGTV. Just sitting on the couch and watching HGTV, getting ideas on new pillows. I don't know if you've seen people are now chopping the pillows in the middle and making that little dent. I was like, "When did we start doing that? It's a throw pillow, just throw it on the couch." But now I'm like, "Okay, well, I guess we got to get pillows to chop." I love being outdoors, where I live is one of the best places, I think, to be outdoors. I love all the little trails and being able to find these little waterfalls and looking at the trees change.

Britt Headshot

It was so fun to connect with Britt having served as faculty with her at the ACPA Assessment Institute. We lived right down the road from each other for a few years and never connected one on one until I moved an hour and a half away! What I took most from my conversation with Britt was how connected this work is to who she is and the purpose she is creating for herself in this life. I hope to find ways to collaborate with her more in the future and see what she does in our world. Can’t wait for her dissertation to be done and hit the presses too!

This series is meant to highlight and lift-up those who are working in assessment 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!



The blog post was written by Sophie Tullier, blog team writer and Director of Assessment, Data Analytics, & Research at the University of Delaware. 


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