Photos by Caitlin Cunningham

Yvonne McBarnett has come home.

Not to England, where she was born, but to the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center, where she began her Boston College professional career in December 2002.  She spent 14 years ascending from administrative assistant to program administrator at the BAIC before a stint at alumni relations, and seven years as a program manager and director of the Montserrat Coalition in the University Mission and Ministry division.

McBarnett, known to much of the University community as “Ms. Smiley,” won praise upon her recent appointment as BAIC director from Vice President for Student Affairs Shawna Cooper Whitehead, who noted that her leadership, vision, and mentoring skills are meaningful assets that McBarnett brings to the center.

“She has a wealth of experience and a unique ability to connect with people, particularly underrepresented and underserved students,” said Cooper Whitehead.  “She is an ideal fit for the BAIC.”

Founded in 1989 and named for the late Catholic nun, teacher, musician, liturgist, and scholar—and the first Black woman to receive an honorary Doctorate in Religion from BC—the BAIC provides support for the University’s undergraduate community, with a particular focus on AHANA students and multicultural, multiracial, and Options Through Education (OTE) scholars. The center helps students navigate the challenges of college by offering programs that facilitate student identity formation, such as the Racial Identity Development Experience, and build community through events, retreats, and mentoring opportunities.

Yvonne McBarnett

Yvonne McBarnett: "[O]nce they are here, it’s our duty and pledge to serve [AHANA students] holistically, and our responsibility to embrace and empower them.”

McBarnett, who emigrated from London to the Boston area when she was 13, earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master of science degree in administrative studies from the Woods College of Advancing Studies. Her daughter, Mashaunda, is a 2016 graduate of the Lynch School of Education and Human Development, and her sister, Maleka, will earn a degree from the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences this spring.

McBarnett readily relates to BC students who suffer from the so-called “imposter syndrome”—when an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud—because she felt much the same as an adult returning to the classroom.  She credits her family, mentors, friends, and professors who never stopped believing in her.

“Because of that support, I was able to conquer that fear of ‘I’m not good enough [for] Boston College,’ and was able to excel,” she told The Heights in a 2017 interview.  She favors the Booker T. Washington quote, “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.”

McBarnett envisions her office as the source for the same type of encouragement that she received, plus the necessary mentorship to help typically marginalized, underrepresented, and underserved students not only overcome the belief that they “don’t belong” at BC, but to thrive and flourish.  

“These are the perceived barriers that so many AHANA students grapple with every day,” said McBarnett.  “They carry a heavy load. However, the goal of the office will be to offer that listening ear, to celebrate their accomplishments, and to help them achieve little wins, which will support them on their journey toward becoming the leaders of tomorrow.”  

McBarnett—whose office sports a poster quoting poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, “If you don’t like something, change it; if you can’t change it, change your attitude”—also sees BAIC playing a larger role promoting diversity and inclusion within the University, particularly through engagement with student groups on campus.

Regarding discussions about race and respect for ethnic and cultural differences, McBarnett said, “We—the administration—are continuing to have ongoing conversations that involve students about race, identity, and culture. When students see the `head’ working wisely and well, the community will follow.”

From the vantage point of her 21 years on campus, McBarnett characterizes the University as evolving on diversity issues, and feels BC has minimized the divide between the students and the administration.

“It used to be the ‘us versus them’ mentality from the students’ perspective, but I’ve seen a more inviting attitude expressed by University leaders over the years, and students today are more comfortable talking with us,” she said.  “There is much more diversity on campus, and the University and Office of Undergraduate Admission should be commended for the commitment to increasing the number of AHANA students at BC.  

“That said, once they are here, it’s our duty and pledge to serve them holistically, and our responsibility to embrace and empower them.”

For more about the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center, visit


Phil Gloudemans | University Communications | February 2023