She’s Made Student Employment Her Mission at BU
Now, after 40-plus years, Mary Ann French is retiring
Mary Ann French, who first joined BU’s Office of Student Employment in 1979 (she began working at BU in 1975) and has been its director since 2004, will retire at the end of this month. Over the course of her career at BU, she has helped tens of thousands of Terriers to find jobs.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, 9,000-plus students have jobs on campus through her office this year, down from 11,000 in a normal year. They learn new skills, gain real-world experience, and earn $12.75 an hour, money that many of them depend on to help pay their expenses. (Minimum wage goes up to $13.50 beginning in January.) Hundreds more are employed off campus through the BU Job Service. French herself has been working at home during the pandemic.
“She’s good at what she does because she loves the work,” says Julie Wickstrom (MET’13), executive director of Financial Assistance. “She loves helping students. The other thing that stands out about Mary Ann is how she cares about her staff. It’s very important to her to develop her staff. She’s always given them opportunities and empowered them. She’s just a really great leader and role model.”
French was also a key University marshal during Commencement for many years, organizing and seating the faculty. But among her proudest achievements, she says, is her involvement in launching and shepherding the Boston University Initiative for Literacy Development (BUILD) program, begun in 1998, a collaboration among the Wheelock College of Education & Human Development, the Student Employment Office, and the Boston Public Schools that provides work-study opportunities for BU students as reading and math tutors for elementary school students. In 2018, Robert A. Brown, BU president, hosted the program’s 20th anniversary celebration.
French reflected recently on her long career at BU—there’s even an Aerosmith cameo—and what those part-time jobs mean to students.
Mary Ann French
On how she got from New Jersey to BU:
I’m a Jersey girl. I didn’t want to be going into New York City to work, it was just overwhelming for me. Boston was a perfect spot because I could walk from one end of the city to the other, and I felt safe in the city. I came up to go to Emmanuel College. I worked in maternity at Beth Israel Hospital as a ward secretary all through school, then I started working in HR. I was there only a short time, and a friend told me there was a position open at BU that she thought would be a perfect fit for me. My dad worked for the post office, and I guess I got my work ethic from him. I started at BU thinking it was only going to be until I found my ‘real job,’ and the next thing I know, it’s 45 years later!
On her early days at BU, when she worked for the now-defunct Advisory Resource Center:
They moved our office to 660 Beacon Street. We were there during the Blizzard of ’78. I lived in Brookline, so I could walk home, but I walked out the door there, right in Kenmore Square, and all the people were lined up to get home! It was amazing. At my apartment, Joey Kramer from Aerosmith lived on the first floor. We didn’t socialize or anything, but I remember he went out and bought a four-wheel drive on the second day after the blizzard. No one could go anywhere, but next thing you know, right in front of the door, there’s this four-wheel drive car!
On how the work has changed:
We started out with handwritten time sheets for students. There were a couple of thousand students at least, and we spent many an hour, many a night, very late at night, trying to get time sheets out and ready to be picked up the next morning. And then we moved to dot-matrix time sheets, and that was wonderful. And we moved to our new, homegrown state-of-the-art system in 1989. And now it’s time for me to wrap up things, and they’re moving forward with a new system. But it’s nice to know that ours lasted over 30 years.
On why jobs matter to students—and to the University:
Mentoring has been so important. We try to guide students to the right areas and people to talk with. We’re here for them. If the students weren’t here, we wouldn’t have jobs. It’s a big part of the University’s being successful. They work in deans’ offices, they work all over the place, they have their fingers in everything. And it’s great for their résumés, and moving forward, a lot of doors open for them. It’s interpersonal relationships, how they work things out when they have a problem, learning time management, learning how to talk to somebody on the phone professionally. It builds responsibility. They can work in as many jobs as they want, as long as they don’t go over 20 hours a week. They’ve done great things. And a lot of it has to do with their part-time jobs, what they did at BU.
On this tumultuous year with COVID-19:
Students who could work from home were able to continue through the semester. Students who were not able to continue, we had to give some furlough pay. We helped work-study students by paying off their award if they were working in March. We had a student-hire freeze for the summer, so we had to review all the approvals for students to work and get them set up. And luckily the freeze was lifted, mostly, in the fall, so students were able to come back to work—and they’re working, which is great!?
On how some of those jobs are thanks to COVID:
There were 500-plus new jobs from IS&T for room monitors, working on the technology side, making sure students could learn remotely. Some jobs went away, but these new jobs came about. There were COVID contact tracers and others trying to help get things back to normal.
On starting and sustaining the BUILD program:
It started out with our kids going to the Boston Public Schools; they took the bus or did whatever they needed to do to get there. And as it went along, it just grew. We still have BUILD running this year, with probably 100 students right now. It’s been a tough, tough year—everyone is Zooming, but with the connection we’ve had over the years with the schools, they want us and they want students who want to give back. Boston University does a lot for the city. We’ve had thousands of students work on BUILD, and thousands of kids have benefited from it. And there haven’t been many, but every once in a while you have a BUILD tutor who was tutored when they were younger, and that was always a bright spot. It makes us proud.?