Xcalibur Team Reflects on 2023

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Jimmy V said, “To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. Number three is you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special” (Valvano, 1993). At Xcalibur, 2023 has been an amazing year filled with an abundance of laughter, in-depth thinking, and even some tears!  During this year, we added to our team, added to our list of partners, and added to our toolkits.  Below each member of the Xcalibur team shares highlights and reflections about 2023.
Jim Brown, President Over my lifetime I must have said “Let it go” to co-workers, family, friends, and loved one’s thousands of times.  Sometimes it was hard for me to let go of things, in fact I am still holding onto some of those things.  But 2023 was different for me.  “Letting go” was a personal goal I made for myself.  This year would be different, I had a plan, and the first step I needed to complete was resolving an internal struggle I had about what “letting go” meant to me.  I used to think “letting go” only meant just stop worrying about it, giving up, not caring, or in some cases failure.  Those thoughts still exist for me and will for the rest of my life, but I learned that letting go could also be positive.  This year (and over the past few years really) I let go of things that others do better than I do.  I thought this would be freeing, but at first it was not.  My identity was tied to the work that I was doing and if I gave that up, who would I be?  The truth was, if I didn’t let go, I would be holding myself and Xcalibur back.  So, I “let it go”, and you know what, things got better.  I learned that letting go also meant allowing someone else to own the processes, the decisions, and the outcomes.  Letting go required me to not get involved with issues or problems and let someone else solve them.  Letting go is not easy and it was not easy for me, it required work on my part as well as our team.  I am better off today because I let go of things that held me back or where I was holding us back.  Letting go allowed me to grow personally and professionally and I was able to do this thanks to the support from all members of the Xcalibur team throughout the year!
Julie Jaramillo, Director of Evaluation and Data Insights My quote for this year is from Dave Matthews, “Turns out, not WHERE, but WHO you’re with that really matters.”  This year, I’m so happy to be “with” the Xcalibur team.  In the third quarter of 2022 and the first quarter of 2023, we added three new evaluation specialists to our team.  Our growth and commitment to doing more for our partners has allowed us to support more GEAR UP grants with evaluation and SCRIBE, add new tools to our toolkit, and learn new strategies for utilizing evaluation.  2024 had better watch out because Xcalibur is doing it’s best to be where you are and who you are with for data and evaluation support!
Curt Reese, CTO/Director of TechnologyI am proud of my IT Team that completed 7 SCRIBE Releases which included features such as new Scholarship Reports/Exports, enhancements to our FPR Reports, Numerous minor requests for things like additional columns in reports and new/updated report filters, Improvements to SCRIBE’s security architecture, and performance, improvements in the validation and reporting in the SCRIBE Import, and updates to improve how we track FAFSA  data (that will be available in our next release). As with every year, I struggle with maintaining a healthy work-life balance.  I have a 15-year-old daughter who needs constant care because of her genetic condition,  and an 11-year-old daughter who thinks she is a teenager.  I have to lift my older daughter in and out of her wheelchair, bathe her, dress her, feed her and take care of all her medical needs. It is a full-time job all by itself.   And then there’s my younger daughter’s activities.   I volunteer to coach her softball team.  I volunteer to coach challenger baseball. Life is busy, and work is demanding.  I’m an IT guy, so I often work long hours and try to do everything myself.  But this year, I’ve made some changes that have helped me improve my work-life balance. I delegated some tasks to my team and trusted them to do a good job, even if they did things differently than me. I learned to say no when I couldn’t fit something into my schedule. I set realistic goals and expectations for myself at work. And most importantly, I actually used some of those vacation days people always talk about and took some time to relax and recharge. Sometimes you just need a mental health break. It’s not easy, but I’m doing better than before.
Aly Cropley, Data SpecialistAs my oldest two children neared the middle of their high school careers, 2022 came with a feeling that my family was nearing a stage in life where they could get along without me needing to be there each step of the day. But, then an unexpected family addition arrived early 2023 which meant “Team Mom” once again came to the forefront. The first weeks…no, months were a whirlwind, thankfully, my colleagues picked up the slack on “Team Career” while I adjusted to a new workflow with an infant. Words cannot describe how eternally grateful I am and while things certainly looked different, the amount of work that was able to be accomplished without skipping a beat is a testament to the family-like dynamic of hard-working women I am so glad to be a part of at Xcalibur. It’s hard to believe the calendar year is already at a close with our GEAR UP grants almost half through their academic year, SCRIBE trainings nearing complete, and updates to new features and APR/FPR reports on the horizon. I can’t wait to see what 2024 has in store!
Comfort Afolabi, Evaluation Specialist In the past year, I experienced significant growth and learning. I love to acquire new knowledge and it gives me great pleasure to put my new learning into practice. Looking ahead, I plan to continue refining my skills and continue my professional growth. My most interesting moments occur when I engage in conversations with stakeholders, particularly young people. It provides an opportunity for me to meet and connect with people. I love seeing data convergence that informs practical decisions and guides clients in enhancing their programming and program impact. I have a deep appreciation for my colleagues who consistently bring their best to projects and are incredibly supportive of one another. I engage in self-care through physical and spiritual activities that resonate with my beliefs. I am most proud of the work that we continue to do with our evaluation and SCRIBE clients focusing on capacity building and continuous improvement as we venture into new territories.
Melissa Gattuso, Evaluation SpecialistAs I sit down to reflect on the past year, 2023, my heart is filled with gratitude and warmth as I think about the incredible journey I’ve had within the walls of my workplace. It’s not often that one can genuinely say, “”I really do love my work,”” but that sentiment perfectly encapsulates the essence of my professional experience in this transformative year. My coworkers have been the heartbeat of my daily endeavors. Their unwavering support, camaraderie, and shared laughter have made even the most challenging days memorable. I can’t believe how often I’ve snort-laughed or laughed so hard I’ve cried this past year. Together, we’ve faced deadlines, celebrated victories, and built a tight-knit community that extends beyond the confines of our professional roles. The collaborative spirit within our team has been the catalyst for creative problem-solving and a testament to the power of unity. In the realm of the professional landscape, my boss isn’t just a leader; she’s nothing short of a superwoman. Her graceful navigation of the complexities of work and life is a profound inspiration for the entire team. Her leadership style, characterized by empathy and a genuine interest in the team’s well-being, has set the tone for a positive work environment. Feeling valued and acknowledged has been a powerful motivator, empowering me to take on new challenges and stretch beyond my comfort zone. It’s a rare and special thing to have a boss who leads and cares about each team member’s personal and professional development. Equally significant is the deep appreciation I’ve cultivated for the company itself. Beyond the tasks and projects, a sense of belonging comes from aligning with the company’s mission, history, and future. The commitment to fostering a culture of collaboration, innovation, and employee well-being has made every day a rewarding experience. I’ve found purpose in contributing to the larger narrative of our organization and witnessing its positive impact on GEAR UP. Lastly, the year 2023 reflects the collective efforts and unexpected adventures that have made this year one to remember. This year provided an opportunity to visit five new states, each offering unique charm and allure. Exploring unfamiliar landscapes feels safe in our little work cocoon. Knowing that GEAR UP professionals are waiting to greet us on our evaluation trips and show us some of the best of their backyard is a very warm feeling that I don’t take for granted. Whether it was the breathtaking natural wonders, historical landmarks, or the vibrant locals, each state and GEAR UP client left an indelible mark on my travel memories. These journeys have broadened my horizons and instilled another layer of appreciation for the beauty of our country, its people, and the privileges bestowed upon me professionally. As I look ahead, I do so with excitement, knowing that the bonds forged and lessons learned in 2023 will continue to shape my professional journey for years to come. Here’s to more adventures, crossing off additional states from my to-visit list, and kicking ass on the daily with the best work crew possible.
Jordyn Chandler, Evaluation Specialist Reflecting on the past year, 2023 has been a journey marked by growth, change, and a multitude of firsts. Joining Xcalibur as an evaluation specialist changed my life in many ways. From embracing remote work to embarking on solo travel, every experience contributed to a year of personal and professional evolution. One of the most fulfilling aspects of this year has been the privilege of working within a team that shares a unified mission and values. Despite the diverse experience and expertise among my colleagues at Xcalibur, the inclusivity of our work culture ensures that there’s a place for everyone at the table. Knowing how I valued the daily interactions and shared experiences that typically forge connections in a traditional office, I was initially apprehensive of missing those moments in a fully remote position. Remarkably, Julie, our team leader, adeptly fostered camaraderie through weekly team meetings, one-on-one check-ins, and thoughtful client pairings. Before I knew it, I felt seamlessly integrated into the team fabric. While Xcalibur excelled in making our virtual office warm and welcoming, the in-person strategic planning retreats were undeniably the highlight of my year. These retreats provided the perfect setting to enjoy each other’s company, share meals, and collaborate effectively, reigniting my passion for the impactful work we do. Looking ahead to the next year, I am eager to embrace new challenges, foster further personal and professional growth, and continue the collaborative journey with my exceptional team at Xcalibur. I am optimistic that the coming year will bring even more opportunities for shared success, camaraderie, and fulfilling accomplishments.
Nelson Epifanio, Software Developer The biggest task I completed in 2023 was the conversion of all GEARUP reports to use Flexcel. In 2024, I look forward to working on major updates to GEAR UP with the planned conversion of OR Mapper to Dapper/Entity Framework and the conversion of webforms to ASP.NET Core. I also plan to explore tools that will allow us to create dashboards that will convert our data into coherent, visually immersive, and interactive insights.