Gabby McCutchen: A leading force in FYE courses

Achieving the Dream is proud to Spotlight a key component in the national community-college reform network to help more students succeed:  people.  Our people have risen to the challenge and focus on the way forward and the ‘big picture’.  Our people drive the organization forward, achieve results, have a vision for the future and deliver on that vision.

One such leading force was submitted for a Spotlight feature from Durham Technical Community College.  Below is  DTCC's submission.


Ms. Gabrielle McCutchen (Gabby) is the architect of one of the best First-Year Experience (FYE) courses in the country designed specifically for community college students. Her work is excellence in action; the course she has designed and the training she provides for faculty who teach the course are premier examples of best practices in the field.

Gabby has designed experiences for new students to develop success in the classroom and in their personal and professional lives. The course focuses on three main objectives for students: learning about the college, learning about themselves, and developing a plan for moving forward. Her students learn about college culture, explore their own interests and aptitudes, research their academic and career choices, and develop a plan for success at the college. Her course also includes typical First-Year Experience topics like study skills, time management, note-taking skills, and test-taking skills. Gabby moves beyond just a cursory approach to these FYE topics, though; the activities and experiences she has designed for her students are engaging and innovative. At the end of every class session, she concludes with a short Classroom Assessment Technique (CAT) of some sort to check on student learning and to provide students with a quick way to communicate with her about what went well (or not so well) for them in learning the course material for that day. This is just one simple way she lets her students know she is there for them collectively and individually.

In her course, Gabby includes activities that challenge students to think metacognitively, learning about strengths they can build on to help them be successful in college while identifying barriers they may need to learn to maneuver around to ensure their success. She also provides them with tools (e.g., assessments and inventories offered through the College Foundation of North Carolina, a learning styles inventory, a motivation and resiliency inventory, and career interest and aptitude indicators) to uncover what may be their hidden potential or what may lead them toward personal epiphanies about their academic and career aspirations. Students research using these tools and others and then process what they are learning in class, within the context of assignments she has designed, and with her via email or one-on-one discussions during office hours.

As you might have gleaned, Gabby is an innovator. She has built her course and her faculty training sessions around an active-learning approach. She moves colleagues in her training sessions and students in her classes gracefully from one topic and activity to the next, connecting each activity and culminating with a discussion that ties each lesson together in thoughtful ways, always connecting experiences and insights to the overarching concepts and skills she intends for them to explore and master throughout the training and within the course. She is the architect of the course in her role as director, but she is an artist in the classroom as she weaves curriculum, instructional strategies, and classroom management techniques together with apparent ease. It is truly a graceful dance, and she performs it beautifully with a deep sense of commitment to her students and an affable sense of humor, too.

In the First-Year Experience course, Gabby also encourages students to become engaged in campus activities and learn about resources at the college that can support them. The first homework assignment she assigns is designed to get students walking, talking, and learning about the campus; then students are encouraged to participate in campus activities and events and write about those experiences. Another important lesson covered in the course is financial aid literacy; students learn about types of aid and the process getting – and keeping – financial aid. At the end of the course, students leave with a portfolio of their work, including an Academic Course Plan that maps out the courses they intend to take each semester to earn their chosen credential at Durham Tech and their plan for transferring to a senior institution to continue their education; students continue to use this plan as they meet with their academic advisors each term.

All of this creativity and thoughtful curriculum design is truly making a difference for our students. Five years of data have shown a twenty percent higher Fall-to-Spring term persistence rate for students in the target population (entering program students with fewer than 12 college credits earned) who take the course (77 percent) over those who do not take the course (55 percent). Thanks to the support and intention provided to us through the Achieving the Dream Catalyst Grant, we are bringing what started as an optional initiative to full-scale implementation. We have embedded the experience into a coordinated First-Year Experience at Durham Tech, ensuring that all students in the target population will take the course within their first semester of enrollment.

Like so many of our colleagues here and at other Achieving the Dream institutions, we are energized by our work. We recognize, though, that lifting up examples of excellence is critical in sustaining the work and the talented people who make it all possible. Gabby goes above and beyond every day. She is an educator, a servant-leader, and a scholar. While there are many professionals among us who do this work and do it well, we know that Gabby is among the very best. You may not have her, mind you; she belongs at Durham Tech, but we appreciate the opportunity to lift her up in celebration as an Achieving the Dream SPOTLIGHT.

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