Insights from the Interns: Lessons from my CAS Assessment Journey

Lessons and tips from a new professional's early steps into CAS self-assessment; a post from Intern Kimberly A. Kruchen.
As new professionals, many of us search for opportunities to develop skills and concrete experiences that increase our wisdom for working in the student affairs field. We will use this wisdom to make decisions in our fight to create a better world for the students we currently serve, as well as those who will come in the future. Reflecting on lessons we have learned and how to use them in our practice is a great opportunity for new professionals. Therefore, I am using this blog as an opportunity to reflect, and impart some level of wisdom to other new professionals, on conducting a first CAS program review. 

Reflecting on my first position at the University of Colorado - Boulder, I can count several influential opportunities that shaped who I am as a student affairs professional. One of the most critical opportunities I had was to chair an internal CAS review for a department in the student union. I was selected as the Chair of the CAS review for the custodial and maintenance department. It is from this perspective that I will discuss helpful insights to professionals who are looking to develop their skills while leading a CAS review. 

The following eight tips are principles I learned after traveling along my first journey into a CAS assessment. They are by no means all-encompassing, but if they give you even a little insight into the process I will have accomplished my goal. I hope that you will take these tips and use them to develop and integrate them into your own principles while using CAS and working in this field. 

- Tip 1. The first reaction I had when I was told I would be chairing a program review was a mix of excitement and trepidation. As a new professional, leading a team of people who had varying degrees of understanding of the CAS process was hard. For a review to be successful, it is necessary to help every individual on the CAS internal review team understand how they can benefit from the information and how the department can use it to increase the quality of the services they deliver. At the end of the day, keep the purpose of higher education in mind, and know that as the chair you will need to demonstrate how valuable every employee is and the crucial role they play in serving students. The CAS standards will help you to build the best program you can.

- Tip 2. We explain to our students the importance of collaboration and team work, and now it is our turn to model those behaviors for our students. In any CAS review, it is important at the start of the review process to decide how the team will make decisions and how you will rate each of the standards. For the CAS review, I found success with consensus decision-making. Student affairs professionals might think of consensus decision-making as helping your students learn about synergistic decision-making through simulations like “being lost in the Amazon” or “surviving an earthquake.” While the CAS review will not parallel being stranded in the Amazon, the reasons for consensus decision-making are still valuable. The primary reason for this is to ensure everyone has a meaningful voice in the process and has the opportunity to bring their voice to the table in a constructive way. A CAS review can help to reinforce social justice values in an individual department. 

- Tip 3. The majority of professionals in student affairs will tell you how important it is to develop relationships with colleagues who are both on your campus and in your functional area. This is especially true when conducting a CAS review. The standards exist as a guideline for a program or service. As a union event planner, I did not know very much about the custodial and maintenance department. Having the opportunity to learn more about this department changed my perspective of the work required to keep the union functional and safe. To this end, it also connected me to more of the professionals outside of my department and helped build a deeper affinity to the union, as well as to the people who could help me to perform my job better. A CAS review can help professionals to gain or improve their cross-functional skills. 

- Tip 4. A CAS review, when done well, can be a long but worthwhile process. From gathering evidence to lengthy discussions, it is important to trust the process. In higher education, the pace at which work gets done can be frustrating, but my advice is to not rush this process. By being deeply engaged in this work, your department will come away with a clear vision for the future. As many departments face the possibility of decreased funding, it is those with a clear vision that is directed at providing excellent service to students who will be the most successful. Professionals who trust the process will come away with an invaluable, data-driven solution, and specific vision for your department.  

- Tip 5. In graduate school we are encouraged to ask questions and construct knowledge. We do this through various methods including working with professors, discussing topics with peers, and reading copious amounts of literature. When it comes to completing a CAS review, new professionals should also use all of the resources at their disposal. At some institutions, resources might include an assessment office or colleagues with previous experience conducting CAS reviews. You can also look at the CAS website for a variety of resources and engage with the staff to answer any questions. This is also a great chance to put those assessment skills you learned to work! Use all of the resources you can. 

- Tip 6. Conducting a CAS review is a learning process. When conducting the review, I worked hard to make sure every piece of evidence was cataloged and every standard had a detailed explanation of the reasoning we used to arrive at the rating; mostly I wanted it to be perfect. While it is not a bad thing to strive for the highest quality possible, the lesson I missed was that the CAS standards are a living document and are designed to be adapted to specific institutions and departments. In hindsight, I missed a lot of the value while trying to make the document perfect. Use the CAS standards as a living document to understand how to best achieve the mission of your department. 

- Tip 7. The Director who oversaw the CAS review process at CU - Boulder was dedicated to understanding the needs of students in order to improve services for them. One of the most important aspects of conducting a review, and one I agree with, is the role of the student perspective on the review committee. In this process, the students with whom I had the opportunity to work brought unparalleled input, insight, and suggestions. Include the student perspective whenever possible on a CAS review. 

- Tip 8. For new professionals who are taking on this task of chairing or serving on a CAS review, it is your responsibility to create a safe space for everyone on the review committee. This is not something that can be imposed one day and then disregarded the next. It is something everyone will have to work at each day and in each interaction. A CAS review hinges on the idea that people bring their honest opinions, and highest level of integrity to the table. Therefore, it is important guidelines for discussions are outlined and participants are given the space to participate without fear of rejection or judgment. To be truly valuable, create a safe space while completing a CAS review. 

Now as a graduate student I have the opportunity to lead another CAS review in my position at the University of Virginia. However, this CAS review is quite different - a version 2.0 -  because I will be integrating three Self-Assessment Guides. I will use each of these tips in conducting this current review and walk away with even more tips. You can continue to follow the progress of this project at UVA through the "Insights from the Interns" blog on the CAS website. My parting words of advice to new professionals is to find principles that guide your work. While these CAS program review tips are specific to this type of project, I often apply them to my other work. I know I have kept them with me while working and remember, “the most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

Kimberly A. Kruchen is an Intern for the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education, and a Master's Student in the Higher Education Program at the University of Virginia.