Throughout the month of March, W&M Information Technology will be celebrating Women’s History Month by shining a spotlight on some of the ladies who keep the department and the university connected using the latest technology.
Sophy Feng brings a unique perspective to W&M IT. Originally from China, Sophy has been in the United States for about 20 years, and at the university for 12 of those years. As Director of Institutional Research, Sophy works with university data and explains why her job goes well beyond just counting heads. Learn more about Sophy!
What year did you start working at W&M?
I started at W&M as a research analyst in the office of Institutional Analysis & Effectiveness in 2009. Part of that department has evolved into Institutional Research and we found a home in W&M IT in 2019. We then relocated to Jones Hall in late February 2020, and just a couple of weeks later shifted to remote work because of the pandemic.
What were you doing before that?
Before I came to W&M I was a senior research analyst for enrollment management at Old Dominion University.
What are some of your duties?
When I joined W&M in 2009 one of my senior colleagues told me that our job is to count heads (i.e. heads of students, faculty, staff, space, classrooms, seats, etc.). I would say that's a very vivid yet incomplete description of the Institutional Research profession. I work with university data and other public data sources, from data collection, analysis (especially trend analysis) and benchmark studies, prediction, to reporting and dissemination to the external entities and internal university stakeholders at all levels, and try to help them refine their research questions and answers so they might use that in their decision making. It's definitely more than just counting heads, and is always challenging me in different ways. I also work proactively with our Chief Data Officer for our entire W&M community to define data definitions, help to define their data needs, research or business questions to support the university's strategic plan (Vision 2026).
What has been the biggest technological advancement the university has made during your years in IT?
The biggest technology advancement that I see the university had made is the digital transformation that happened in our daily work in every area. This does not just refer to a single technology or software we adopted. It is a concept, a mindset transition, a series of culture, workforce and technology shifts that enable new teaching, learning and operating models to be more practical in this current digital world. There are so many examples I can list, e.g., the Digital Archives services of SWEM library which digitally transformed and published IR’s University Data Books of early years, our office’s interactive Qlik University Fact Book publication which gives W&M community more data access, a first but huge step of promoting and elevating data culture. The biggest example of this digital transformation has been the adoption of remote work and learning modes. It has absolutely changed the way we teach, learn, work, collaborate and network and opens up a lot of opportunities that we haven't seen before. I believe this digital transformation will remain to be one of the biggest challenges we face in Higher Ed.
Is there a project that stands out in your mind that was particularly interesting or fun to work on? Why?
Over the years I have worked on many data projects for the university that have given me a sense of pride. One example would be when I worked with the Student Retention and Graduation Task Force to find out if there's any significant characteristics among non-completers. Our findings helped the university improve our graduation rate from 90% to 92%. I felt both proud and happy when I saw that my work had a positive impact and helped faculty, staff and students to some extent. The pure fun often comes from some small and subtle moments during my work. For example, when I get a call or email asking to help find some very old university data record, or when I've detected and solved some data related issues, or whenever I've learned something new.
How do you stay current with technology?
I like to attend forums and conferences, read higher education articles, and it makes it easier now that so many are virtual. Because of the nature of my work with data, I do think technology is one thing we need to stay current, however technology cannot solve all the data issues we are facing now. Data literacy, business processes that keep our high data quality, data driven culture, etc. should all play a key role in our whole data strategy.
What do you like to do when you're not working?
When I am not working my day job I am doing my other full time job as a mom of three children. I love to spend time with my kids and try my best to stay on top of their activities. I also love to cook, gather with friends, walk outdoors and Facetime with my family in China.
Do you have a favorite memory from your time working in IT?
Yes, even though I've only been part of the IT family for a little bit over two years, and only been in Jones Hall physically for three weeks before converting to remote due to the pandemic, I do have a few good memories in IT. My favorite memory is the one in-person IT All Hands meeting where everyone attended. It was a very nice opportunity to meet and get to know all of my colleagues in IT.
What's unique about working in W&M IT?
The entire IT team is very collaborative and united and always willing to help one another.