With Humor, ‘Ms. Smiley’ Makes Students Feel at Home

When I asked Yvonne McBarnett to recount her time at Boston College, she laughed. “Okay, so you want me to go back to the Ice Ages?”

While humorous, the sentiment behind the remark rings true. McBarnett began her BC journey in 2002, and has since earned two degrees, worked at Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center (BAIC) as an administrative assistant, counselor, and program administrator, and currently manages the Montserrat Coalition. All of these experiences have given her the unique opportunity to connect with students on a personal level. Her immediately apparent warmth and ability to put everyone in the room at ease are just a few qualities which gave McBarnett her affectionate nickname, “Ms. Smiley.”

McBarnett began her journey at BC unexpectedly, with a temp job. She had recently had her youngest daughter, who is now almost 17, and had quit her job as an insurance analyst and bank teller. Her brother worked at BC at the time as a police officer, and recommended looking into the temp pool. After meeting with human resources, she took a typing test on a Wednesday, and landed the job by that Friday.

She enjoyed her work at BC, and liked the flexibility of the hours, which gave her optimal time to be home with her newborn daughter. She immediately found a community at BC, despite not holding a permanent position.

“Everyone was willing to help, everyone was willing to support,” she said. “BC is very family-oriented, which pushed me to excel as an adult person.”

Although she started her journey in August, by December, BC hired her for a full-time position as an administrative assistant in 2002.

In that role, she held an associate’s degree, but was soon approached by Donald Brown, the former director of BAIC. Brown told her that since she had been hired full-time to work at BC, it was time to go back to school, and recommended the Woods College of Advancing Studies. Seeking to gain the most BC had to offer, McBarnett wanted to immerse herself in her true calling—assistance and care of the human person, which she hoped would ultimately lead her to effect social change. With the support and persuasion of her family and mentors such as Brown, McBarnett enrolled in 2003 and graduated in 2006 with an undergraduate sociology degree from BC.

When she started taking classes, she remembers the intimidation that gripped her as an adult person with a family going back to school. This feeling quickly dissipated, however, with the support of her professors who reminded her that her age wasn’t going to hold her back.

Though she had the knowledge and tools to succeed, McBarnett faced setbacks in her education. When McBarnett had a theology paper returned to her with an F, she immediately went to see her professor and asked him why she had failed. He simply responded that she wasn’t working hard enough. Although it was tempting to give up and take the easy way out, McBarnett has always been stronger than that. After he told her that she could do better, she turned those words into the strongest motivation and quickly reached her fullest potential as a student. She also credits her friends and family, who never stopped believing in her.

“Because of that support, I was able to conquer that fear of ‘I’m not good enough at Boston College,’ and was able to excel,” she said.

As both a full-time parent, employee, and college student, her days were far from easy. After working from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., McBarnett would eat a quick dinner before making it to her 6:30 class. She’d generally finish class around 9:30 and not get home for another few hours.

McBarnett had not been born in the United States, but had immigrated from London when she was about 13 years old. She felt it was her responsibility to take advantage of this opportunity and improve the lives of her family members.

“It was hard, but I had to do it,” she said. “Not only for my family, but for me.”

The encouragement didn’t stop there. With a little more pushing from Brown, McBarnett enrolled a second time the next year, and got her master’s degree in administrative studies, and is now a proud Double Eagle. This consistent tenacity is a defining characteristic of McBarnett, who realizes that no matter what she does in life, she will face challenges.

“But, if you persevere and be resilient you can not only change your life but the lives of others,” she said.

During her time as an undergraduate at BC, McBarnett got involved with the BAIC as an administrative assistant due to her ever-present wish to connect with the student body. When students walked in, she would be the one at the desk welcoming them and would be the first face they saw. Ever personable, McBarnett would take the time to talk to them about their lives—how school was going, what organizations they were involved with—for her, this was the most engaging aspect of the job. Being involved with students and interacting with them on a personal level filled McBarnett with energy and joy. Before long, she realized that this was her calling, and decided to become more involved in whatever ways she could be. She started meeting other people in her classes who also worked with students, and listened to their experiences.

“I was supporting the students, and they were supporting me,” she said.

Talking to students in the center’s office and hearing of their experiences and challenges made her more selfless, and she realized that she had the valuable gift of a BC experience. She had made it through two rounds of schooling at BC, and now it was her responsibility to take her experiences and use them to support the students here.

After three years as an administrative assistant, McBarnett got a counseling position in 2005. Early on at her new post, she remembers getting a call from a student urging her to meet with one of the student’s friends. Although McBarnett was on her way out at the end of the day, she didn’t hesitate for a second before agreeing to a meeting. The student in question came into McBarnett’s office and began to share their challenges, which included struggles with sexual abuse and academic failure, and finally, thoughts of ending their life.

After listening to her talk for about 30 minutes, McBarnett told her that the student was valuable and created for a purpose. After these affirmations made the student feel a little better, McBarnett asked if she could walk the student to University Counseling Services. The student responded that they wouldn’t mind, as long as they didn’t have to go alone. After accompanying the student to UCS, McBarnett waited with them the whole time. The counselor concluded that the student would need to be hospitalized. Shortly, the student walked out and asked if they could hug.

“You just saved my life,” the student said.

McBarnett realized that there are so many students carrying burdens who simply need someone to talk to.

“The education is good, but [college experience] needs to be more personable than that,” McBarnett said.

The Montserrat Coalition, founded by Marina Pastrana, BC ’08, aims to provide financial aid to students so that they may fully experience all that BC and the Jesuit education has to offer. McBarnett remembers working just a few doors down from her, and would often send students to Pastrana’s office of 78 College Rd. from McBarnett’s office of 72 College Rd. When Pastrana left her post at the Montserrat Coalition to work with the Catholic Extension, McBarnett applied for her position, but it wasn’t her time.

McBarnett initially became involved with the Montserrat Coalition a few years later through Rev. Jack Butler, S.J., who sought her out specifically and told her he had a job that she needed to apply for. At the time, she had moved over to University Advancement as an assistant director. He told her that the way she connected with students and went above and beyond to make sure their needs were met more than qualified her for the position. They chatted in his office for over two hours while he shared his vision about Montserrat and what he wanted the program to be. As a Christian woman, McBarnett also appreciates the program’s ties to service.

“St. Ignatius was in Spain and he laid down his sword for teaching, serving, and giving to others,” she said. “That’s what this program emulates.” She felt a deep calling to continue that mission of supporting the students of BC.

McBarnett now serves as the manager of the Montserrat Coalition. The Montserrat Coalition is growing every day, and is now close to providing financial assistance and resources to nearly 2,000 students. This year alone, they’ve served over 1,000 students. Although Montserrat prides itself on its financial assistance, McBarnett doesn’t think it’s confined to it.

“Everyone that comes in will be served not only financially or tangibly, but holistically,” she said.

If a student wants to meet, he or she will submit a request online, and then be given the opportunity to meet with either her, Frank Garcia, or Alex Crockford, the other faces of the Montserrat Coalition. Every day, she walks into the office at 7:35 a.m. and by the time she leaves at night has served up to 15 students whose needs could range from needing a coat or a ticket for an event to flight assistance for Winter Break.

“She works tirelessly many, many hours throughout the week, and weekend, and beyond to make sure students have what they need, and she’s deeply committed,” Kelli Armstrong, a member of the Montserrat task force and a personal mentor of McBarnett’s, said.

Because of her personality and reputation on campus as a devoted listener, students just come in to have a conversation. If someone walks in who wasn’t on the schedule, her door is always open. McBarnett knows that on any given day, a student could come in with a crisis and need her assistance, and they will never be turned away.

“Getting to talk to students … that’s what gives me joy,” she said. “That’s what I thrive on.”

McBarnett’s passion for the students is clear to everyone involved with Montserrat.

“Yvonne loves every single student who walks through the door. She is so supportive of them in terms of what they need from a logistical standpoint but also loves them as people as well. The students immediately recognize that they have an advocate,” Armstrong said.

When not in the office, McBarnett loves spending time with her two daughters, the elder of whom is a recent graduate from BC. They’ll often have ‘date night for the girls,’ and she also enjoys date nights with her husband. She also recognizes the importance of alone time, however, and one of her favorite solitary activities includes walking around the Reservoir while talking in nature and singing songs on her Spotify playlists. Come Monday, though, she’s always ready to get back in the office.

“I feel like in this position right now, I’ve hit the megabucks, all of the lottery tickets in the world,” she said. “You could never feel any better than where I am today. I haven’t worked a day in my life. What is work? When you’re passionate about what you’re doing, it’s not about nine to five.”


Featured Image by Sam Zhai / Heights Staff

November 19, 2017