Learning to Work Smarter, Not Harder

Diane Blum is an Institutional Research Specialist and Danielle Buehrer is Director of Institutional Effectiveness and Research, both at South Georgia State College. They were recognized at the 2013 Forum in Long Beach as Distinguished Honor Students in celebration of their completion of the six-course AIR Data and Decisions® Academy curriculum.*  

Interview by Leah Ewing Ross   

AIR's Eric Godin, Christopher Coogan and Elaine Cappellino present Diane Blum (left) and Danielle Buehrer (right) with their Academy curriculum completion plaques at the AIR Forum in Long Beach.

eAIR: Please share a little about the journey that led to your participation in the Data and Decisions Academy. 

Diane: While working in the office of Residence Life at South Georgia State College (SGSC), I began “playing” with data to try to determine if recently implemented programming was effective. The president of the institution noticed my interest in data and research and nominated me for a Data and Decisions Academy Presidential Scholarship. Not long after completing the first two Data and Decisions courses, a research analyst position became available in the Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Research. The knowledge I gained in those two Data and Decisions courses set me apart from the other candidates; I received the job offer and accepted it. 

Danielle: After graduate school, I enrolled in and completed the IR Certificate at Florida State University, through which I became familiar and active with AIR. In 2010, the College’s president recognized my efforts to promote the use of data for decision making and nominated me for a Data and Decisions Academy Presidential Scholarship. I knew that the Academy was a reputable program when I realized it was hosted by AIR.  

eAIR: What do you value most about the Academy experience?  

Diane: I value the knowledge and skills I have gained through my participation with the Academy. Prior to receiving the Presidential Scholarship, I did not know that institutional research was a career path. Now I have a greater understanding of the field, which is constantly changing and expanding. The opportunities afforded to me as a result of my involvement with the Academy are also rapidly growing. 

Danielle: The experience in the Academy introduced me to the practical application of institutional research. The knowledge and skills I obtained in the courses made me more proficient at organizing and preparing data for analysis and, in turn, analyzing data and using effective methods to present data to stakeholders.  

eAIR: How has the knowledge you gained from Academy courses been useful in your day-to-day work?  

Diane: The hands-on assignments gave me the experience I needed to immediately apply the skills I learned in my day-to-day work. I was able to streamline reporting by learning about software functionality, and now know how to prepare, review, and present high quality data relevant for the conversation or project at hand.   

Danielle: Use of Access and Excel to complete course exercises gave me hands-on data analysis practice and built my knowledge base. I apply the knowledge I gained in the classes in my work on a daily basis and continue to reference the course materials when designing surveys and preparing data for presentations.  

eAIR: What was your favorite part of the Academy experience?  

Diane: The feedback I gained was one of my favorite parts of the courses. Through communication with my mentors, I was able to gain a better understanding of the topics I studied. They guided me through the difficult assignments and helped me learn how to present data and provide context for stakeholders who, in turn, are able to make better decisions for the institution. 

Danielle: I appreciated that even when an exercise was complete, a mentor would share suggestions on how to address the assignment in a different way or how to share the data in a different format. I also liked the course videos. A student is able to pause or re-watch the videos as many times as needed in order to learn the different steps in cleaning, preparing, and analyzing data. 

eAIR: What advice do you have for individuals interested in the Academy? 

Diane: The courses are designed specifically for institutional research professionals and provide the strong foundation needed to be successful in the field. Everyone at the Academy is friendly and dedicated to making sure that students gain the skills needed to achieve success. The mentors are great about working around busy schedules, so prospective students should not feel reluctant about taking on “one more thing.” I hate to sound cliché, but you actually learn to work smarter, not harder. 

Danielle: I would like to emphasize that the skills gained from these courses can be applied immediately to jobs in institutional research. Completing the Academy has been one of the best professional development opportunities with which I’ve been involved. The information learned is useful and practical. 

eAIR: What motivates you, and what plans have you made for your next “learning adventures?” 

Diane: I have a genuine love for learning. Working in a field that is constantly growing and changing allows me the luxury of staying excited about my career choice. The constant need for professional development motivates me to keep pushing forward to “stay ahead of the game.” Next, I plan to pursue the IR Certificate at Florida State University. 

Danielle: Staying professionally active motivates me. I enjoy learning from peers and experts and bringing this knowledge back to my college in order to enhance the learning experience we provide for students. I also consider myself a professional student, so I’m always looking for new opportunities to strengthen my abilities. I plan to enroll in a doctoral program next.

Part of the mission of the Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Research at SGSC is to promote the use of data for assessment and decision making purposes. As a two-person office, Diane and I work as a team. Diane handles all of the data requests (internal and external), we share the data with stakeholders, and I use the data for assessment and decision making. As a team, we promote and provide the tools for data-driven decision making at SGSC.  

* The AIR Data and Decisions® Academy is a series of online, self-paced courses for community college institutional research professionals.