Last week marked a full decade of the Montserrat Coalition, a University Mission and Ministry initiative that aims to provide financial aid, mentorship, and support for students coming from low-income backgrounds. Maria Pastrana, the organization’s founder, spoke at a celebration attended by 145 students on Thursday.
The group began in 2008 after students, faculty, and administrators joined together to provide free entrance to a limited number of social events on campus, such as movie premiers, theater productions, football games, and concerts. Soon after, they began to help fund EMT training, service programs, and retreats. Eventually, they began to offer other forms of services and support. Montserrat serves about 1,400 students, or 15 percent of the undergraduate population, according to its webpage.
Coming from a low-income, Mexican-American household, Pastrana was the first member of her family to attend college. During her time at BC, Pastrana recognized the lack of resources offered on campus for students who shared her background.
In her keynote, Pastrana reflected on her efforts to establish Montserrat. It all started with her first semester experience at BC. Leaving San Diego for Boston, she was shocked by the lack of diversity. The only Latina in her dorm, she struggled to find a place on campus. Her financial need only added to this overwhelming experience.
“At the time, freshman welcome week cost $100,” Pastrana said. “If you didn’t have those $100 and you didn’t buy the tickets to participate, when everyone else went to these events … you were stuck on Newton.”
During her junior year, Pastrana met Rev. TJ Martinez, S.J. She became visibly emotional as she mentioned his affect on her BC journey—Martinez has since passed away—yet she was thankful for their conversations that changed her view of BC.
He inspired her to go on a pilgrimage in Spain, where she learned the spiritual exercises, and then to attend the Kairos retreat.
“That was the first time where I was really open to this idea of my own spiritual journey, and also what community meant here on campus,” Pastrana said.
She attended a panel on privilege and disparity at BC, and said she was very vocal about the experience of low-income students.
“I had come to love BC,” Pastrana said. “But I knew many other students who were in similar economic situations as I was and who were extremely jaded and who didn’t love BC and who didn’t have a good experience and blamed the institution because they felt the institution didn’t care. I knew otherwise.”
As a graduate student, Pastrana and a number of faculty members created the Economic Challenge Committee, a place where Pastrana could express her feelings to those who worked for the University. Her graduate assistant position allowed her to contact students and offer them free tickets to events.
The next year, the Economic Challenge Committee was given $80,000 to use for students, yet it remained an unofficial organization. Pastrana’s graduation meant that she would no longer be allowed contact with students. If she was going to act, it had to be now.
“‘Last night, I slept two hours. I put the documents for the program together and sent them. Whatever happens, I do not know, but I do know I did all I could. I hope everything goes well,’” Pastrana read from her journal, dated July 21, 2010. “And here we are today!”
Also present at the celebratory event was Yvonne McBarnett, better known as Ms. Smiley, the director of Montserrat.
“It has humbled me a lot to see what Marina did … to advocate for the students that are here and I will not take away from all the hard work that she’s done, but just to add to what she’s done,” McBarnett said. “We’ve been able to grow, there have been a lot of changes.
“I’m hoping that we would get more funding to support the students that we have on campus. I would love to see more staff. Right now we have two people, a [graduate assistant], and four student interns.”
She is happy to see more students taking advantage of the resources the Coalition offers, as well as bringing in more visitors to the office.
“We’re sharing our love, they’re telling their friends, and they’re bringing their love back to us,” McBarnett said.
Students enjoyed a buffet and raffle during the event. As the evening came to an end, students were treated to cake and a performance from Synergy.
Pastrana reminded students that Montserrat is about preparing students for what comes after college—the various challenges, financial and otherwise, that students will have to face.
“You will continue to face challenges,” Pastrana said. “But the decision you make today will guide you to the person you want to be in the future. Now is the time to learn who you are.”
Featured Image by Jess Rivilis / For the Heights