Telling the Story Behind the Data

Natalie Solverson is the Director of Institutional Research at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. In 2013, Natalie was awarded the Edward Delaney Scholarship given annually to one early career professional who has never attended the AIR Forum. The criteria for the scholarship included writing an essay describing outcomes expected from participation at the Forum. We asked Natalie about the specific objectives she anticipated from attending her first Forum in 2013 and the outcomes achieved over the past year.
Interview by Elaine Cappellino
eAsolverson.jpgIR: Can you share an example of a project or report you initiated based on knowledge gained through AIR?
I have two specific examples of what our office implemented based on knowledge from the AIR Forum. First, we started an internal website where we could post interesting facts, results from projects we worked on, updates about data we posted to the external website, and so on. I went to a few sessions about this topic at the AIR Forum. Our university is moving to a new web content platform this summer so we're hoping our new page will be better integrated with the blog.
In addition, we started utilizing Tableau for our annual program review reports. This was a big help to us in terms of efficiency in producing those reports.
eAIR: You noted in your essay that you were “lucky to work with very talented people,” so you wanted to lead them well. What effect did your attendance at Forum have on your ability to lead your team this year?
More than anything it inspired me to get them to come to the next Forum! I'm happy to say our Research Analyst was awarded a Professional Development Grant from our institution to help defray some of the costs of her attendance. Networking with colleagues gave me good ideas for projects and training resources where I could direct my staff to improve their own professional knowledge and skills.
eAIR: Have you initiated any research projects that were inspired by ideas shared at the Forum?
Yes, in a roundabout way. I was able to collaborate with other faculty and staff on a research project related to the College Readiness Math MOOC that our institution initiated in January 2013. The research project started in September 2013, and I had learned more about the practical applications of cluster analyses at the Forum in May, which was the initial approach into analyzing the data we had gathered.
eAIR: We know you didn’t have to write an essay this year, but did you set learning objectives for yourself in preparation for attending the 2014 Forum?
Last year I focused my attendance on specific topics related to being relatively new to IR and ideas for implementing Tableau into our work. This year my colleagues attended more of those sessions and I turned my attention to cross-campus management issues, such as data governance.
eAIR: You just returned from the Forum in Orlando. What was your biggest take home this year?
Focus on telling the story behind the data. I really enjoyed the presentations that focused on ways to talk about, share, and display information in a way that is accessible to the audience. It is so important to know your data, and if you do, then focus on what you've learned and why it matters to your audience. I also got some great take-away ideas for connecting with your staff when your office is small and staff meetings may not be the best way to share information.
eAIR: What advice would you share with new members to help them make the most of their AIR membership following their first Forum?
Be sure to reach out and keep up those connections you established at the AIR Forum. One way to do this is get involved in your regional IR group, and for me this is the Upper Midwest affiliated organization. Last year at the regional AIRUM conference, I worked with several other members on some co-presentations which was fun because we got to know one another better and grow in our presentation skills at the same time.
eAIR: What surprised you the most about Forum?
The vast differences in IR office structure but the similarities that we share in terms of striving for excellence in our work and wanting to make a difference for our campuses and our students. And it is always fun to get together with people who like data as much as you do!
eAIR: You had to travel a good distance to attend this year’s Forum. What is the craziest thing that has ever happened to you while traveling?
Wow, choose just one? I'm a former Admissions Counselor so I have logged many hours of travel for my institution. I was fast asleep in my hotel room in Naperville, IL, early one morning when the room started shaking. Disoriented, I got out of bed and even checked under the bed to see if someone was there. Seeing nothing, I decided it was a strange dream and went back to sleep. The next morning on the news it was reported that a small earthquake had been recorded in the Chicagoland region. (I realize my West Coast colleagues will read this and laugh!)