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Hello, my name is Matt Forcella

This Dungeon Master and academic advisor is about collaboration and success for all.

By Cora Zaletel

February 18, 2019

Matt Forcella in his officeFor more than 25 years, Matt Forcella, academic advisor and retention specialist for the Psychology Department, has been a Dungeon Master in Dungeons and Dragons, a game of storytelling and adventure in which progress occurs through compromise and cooperation. Forcella has translated lessons learned through gaming in a variety of campus initiatives such as the new Super Success Series and Student Retention Book Club to his recent appointment (with psychology faculty member Kristy Lyons) as co-chair of the President’s Council on Academic Excellence and Student Success. While he acknowledges that everyone needs strong and deliberate leadership (like a Dungeon Master), he believes that collective decision-making drives us forward in more meaningful and interesting ways.

What was your path to becoming an academic advisor?

It was accidental. I was pursuing a master’s degree in philosophy in San Francisco when I stumbled onto an after-school program for gifted students in creative writing. I taught middle school and high school for five years – history, English, math – which, while rewarding, was also high-stress. After my wife took a job in Denver, I volunteered at the Denver Scholarship Foundation and someone recommended a Scholar Success Specialist position here at MSU Denver, where I stayed for four years until I returned to teaching to remind myself of the reasons I left. I returned to MSU Denver a year later and have been an academic advisor in psychology for the last three years.

Tell us about a day in the life of an academic advisor.

My days vary so much. During peak advising times, I’m meeting back-to-back all day with my caseload of 500 psychology and human-development majors. Otherwise, I’m collecting retention data from previous semesters, which we use to inform future retention decisions, or I’m busy with projects like the new weekly Super Success Series I helped develop with other LAS (College of Letters, Arts and Sciences) advisors. It tackles subjects like study skills, test-taking, stress and time management.

How do you gauge success?

The ultimate goal is retention. I want to make sure that every student is given the opportunity to succeed. Some will ultimately decide that MSU Denver is not for them, and that’s OK. I want all who come through my door to have the tools they need to be successful if this is where they choose to be and stay.  

What is the primary reason students don’t finish their degrees?

Many of those who leave college without a degree have had academic struggles, which sometimes are caused by outside forces. It’s hard to get information from those who leave, so it’s difficult to answer that question, but it is the one we want to try to answer so we can learn how best to help them.

Is there a best or most effective retention practice?

The best retention practice is supporting students and meeting them where they are. As an open-access institution, we must drop assumptions of what our students know and don’t know, especially our first-generation students. We take so many things for granted as professionals, sometimes we overlook the simple things. We must meet them where they are, not where we think they should be. 

What do you do when not keeping kids in school?

Blacksmithing, sculpting, painting. I’m finishing my fourth novel, a fantasy. I’m going to try to publish this one as I’m ready to get something out there. I enjoy film directing and currently am in preproduction on a short horror comedy film. I’m a huge D&D player, and I’m also in an archery dodgeball league, which is a competition using dodgeball rules but utilizing a bow with foam-tipped arrows rather than balls.

Is there a correlation between D&D and University success?

I can connect D&D with just about everything. For me, D&D is primarily about collaborative storytelling; it’s a bunch of people sitting together creating the world and story they want, but it only works if everyone is (mostly) on the same page. If we apply that to the way a University functions, I think we would see more meaningful movement forward. Everyone talks about breaking silos and working across departments, but it’s often difficult to pull off because people get territorial — everyone wants recognition, and nobody wants blame for anything. From my perspective, we all need to share in each other’s successes and failures.

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