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Alumni: Giving U of T more reasons to be proud


Professor Brenda McCabe, Winner of the 2015 Joan E. Foley Quality of Student Experience Award

To Brenda McCabe, winner of the 2015 Joan E. Foley Quality of Student Experience Award, sustainability is not a contemporary trend but a concept grounded in the very nature of her discipline.
“The products of civil engineering last decades if not centuries,” she says. “So we must take a long-term view of the things we do – everyone gets that.”

Still, it is vital to give aspiring engineers the opportunity to express that dedication. This is one of the ways Professor McCabe, former Chair of Civil Engineering, has contributed to an outstanding student experience at the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering.

Many student activities and clubs with sustainability and community service perspectives thrived on her watch: Sky Garden, Solar Decathlon, Sustainability Forum, Habitat for Humanity builds, Eyes of Hope, and Engineers Without Borders. Of particular interest to her, the Promise to Future Generations is a voluntary pledge that more than 250 students and faculty members have now signed.

“Our students are inspired and eagerly undertake the pursuit of sustainable practices. Sometimes we just need to open the door, stand back, and let it happen.”

A member of the Department of Civil Engineering since 1997, Professor McCabe also knows when to be proactive. As Associate Chair Undergraduate from 2004 to 2006, she started a process where instructors coordinated their major assignments and exams to avoid overloading students by inadvertently scheduling multiple due dates at the same time. She also introduced a manual entitled Guidelines for Instructors that brought together applicable rules, regulations, and best practices for professors and sessional instructors to ensure consistency across the department. It is still in use today. Working with the department’s recruitment team, she championed another innovation, the Top Applicant Event, which brings top prospects and their parents together with faculty and students.

Professor McCabe was equally influential in curriculum development. In 2006, Professor McCabe became Vice-Dean Graduate Studies for the Faculty. In that role she introduced ELITE (Entrepreneurship, Leadership, Innovation and Technology in Engineering) courses to expand the MEng curriculum and address the professional needs of this group.

While Chair, she introduced and co-taught a new course for incoming second-year students entitled Introduction to Civil Engineering. The course orients students to the department’s structure and support systems, helps students transition to the civil program by improving their understanding of the breadth of the discipline, and builds strong class camaraderie. This effort was part of her involvement in the revitalization of the Survey Camp curriculum and facilities at Gull Lake – a keystone in the department for 95 years. She also spearheaded the creation of the new Master of Engineering in Cities Engineering and Management program.

Apart from the admiration she inspired as the first woman vice-dean and first woman department chair in the Faculty’s history, Professor McCabe welcomed direct contact with students, who were inevitably impressed by her warm manner. As chair, Professor McCabe created five undergraduate scholarships, named after the first five women to graduate from the department to bring recognition to their achievements.

“I’ve always believed that being a professor at U of T is the best job in the world, and that our students are a significant factor in making it the best,” Professor McCabe says. “I get tremendous satisfaction from seeing them succeed.

“It is equally important to me that they feel that they belong here, that their education exceeded their expectations, and that they speak about their undergraduate time here with nostalgic enthusiasm.”

“What do I gain? Satisfaction knowing that I had a positive influence on a student’s life, whether it is inside or outside of academia.”

The Joan E. Foley Quality of Student Experience Award is presented along with several other faculty, staff and student awards under the banner of Awards of Excellence. A list of this year’s recipients and their citations can be viewed on the Awards of Excellence website. This award program annually recognizes the outstanding members of the University of Toronto community who have made rich and meaningful contributions to the University, their communities and to the world.

Alumni Relations within the Division of University Advancement is the steward of the Awards of Excellence program on behalf of the University of Toronto Alumni Association, and co-ordinates the vital contributions of other University stakeholder groups toward this prestigious award program.
Professor McCabe and the other 2015 Awards of Excellence recipients will be honoured at a ceremony at the Isabel Bader Theatre on April 13.