At Montserrat Coalition, Students Find Support and Assistance

A recent article published by The New York Times ranked Boston College’s student body as one of the wealthiest in the country, with 70 percent of students coming from households with incomes in the top 20 percent of earnings nationwide.

But not all BC students are supported by affluent families. Roughly 1,400 BC students are members of the Montserrat Coalition, an office in the Division of Mission and Ministry that supports students at the highest level of financial need.

Montserrat offers its members free tickets to a variety of campus events, including athletic games, cultural events, and theatre productions.

Additionally, Montserrat has assisted students with funding for EMT courses, retreats, service programs, independent study, and research. Montserrat not only helps students meet their financial needs, but also empowers students through emotional, social, and academic counsel.

Frank Garcia-Ornelas, assistant manager of the Montserrat Coalition, begins his workday with a sense of great purpose. He often starts his morning by meeting with students about financial assistance.

Next, Garcia-Ornelas informs students of free events on campus that they may be interested in attending. Additionally, he meets with students about opportunities to get involved in the community at BC.

“We’re here to make BC a home,” he said.

Garcia-Ornelas started working in the Montserrat House as a first-year student in the Boston College School of Social Work. He had planned to work with high school students in urban and low-income areas after he earned his degree. But soon after joining the Montserrat team, he realized how important it was to serve low-income, high-need college students.

“The connections I built with students convinced me to stay here after graduation,” Garcia-Ornelas said.

Garcia-Ornelas’ own undergraduate experience began at Rockhurst University, a Jesuit liberal arts college in Kansas City, Mo. He felt out of place within his school’s racially and economically homogenous student body. Furthermore, Garcia-Ornelas did not receive the help he needed from the university—programs assisting low-income students like Garcia-Ornelas did not exist at Rockhurst.

During his junior year, Garcia-Ornelas transferred from Rockhurst to the University of Missouri at Kansas City. He graduated with a BA in art and came to BC to earn his graduate degree.

He was drawn to the University’s Jesuit values and diverse student body, which was more racially and economically varied than the student population at Rockhurst.

“Some students say BC is the least diverse place they’ve ever been,” Garcia-Ornelas said. “But for me, it’s more diverse than any other place I’ve lived.”

The Montserrat Coalition supports economic diversity at BC. Established in 2008, Montserrat’s program and services grow with each passing year.

Last spring, the office held an end-of-year reflection and celebration, bringing students together to look back on the academic year. For the first time, alumni were invited to the event and shared their stories.

“Alumni showed current BC kids where they are now,” Garcia-Ornelas said. “They want to start a mentorship program to help the current Montserrat students grow and find their niche on campus. They want to take initiative.”

One of the most challenging parts of Garcia-Ornelas’ job is not getting to help all students who are in need. Because Montserrat is a coalition, however, the organization maintains relationships with other BC services like the Career Center, Connors Family Learning Center, the Athletics Department, and many more.

By collaborating with one another, these organizations support students in ways that go beyond finance and toward academic and social growth.

This past November, the Montserrat House held a Thanksgiving dinner for students who could not afford to go home. The staff cooked students’ favorite dishes and celebrated as a BC family.

“Sometimes, students come to me with tears in their eyes,” Garcia-Ornelas said. “They may not leave the Montserrat House smiling big every time, but they often leave our home with a great sense of relief.”

Garcia-Ornelas and the Montserrat family also work to combat the stigma associated with being a BC student of high financial need. During 2016 freshmen orientation sessions, the Montserrat team spoke with incoming students about economic diversity and the importance of equal opportunity.

Because this is Garcia-Ornelas’ fourth year with Montserrat, he will see many of the first students he worked with graduate this May.

“One of my first students was a struggling freshman with a 1.9 GPA,” Garcia-Ornelas recalled. “She felt so lost. But now she’s a senior with a 3.5. She shares her experience with other Montserrat students, showing them that they can do it, too.”

Featured Image by Archer Parquette / Features Editor