Campus News

The crossroads moment that changed the life of a GSE student

Nathan Daun-Barnett and Joanna Saintil pictured outside in front of brightly colored abstract mural.

Joanna Saintil and her mentor, GSE faculty member Nathan Daun-Barnett, who fired her from a job she loved. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published July 24, 2019

Joanna Saintil, student, Graduate School of Education.
“I want to have an effect on students from the same background as me. Students that people believe aren’t worth coming to UB. ”
Joanna Saintil, student
Graduate School of Education

Right away, Graduate School of Education school counseling student Joanna Saintil makes it clear she would not be here if it weren’t for GSE faculty member Nathan Daun-Barnett — who fired her from a job she loved.

Both like telling the story, usually with proud smiles. Saintil was a sophomore at UB, advising students in the college success center Daun-Barnett had set up in Buffalo’s Bennett High School. She had deeply impressed Daun-Barnett with her ability to relate to the Bennett students. But somewhere along the line, Saintil began identifying with the students too much, challenging her supervisors about doing more to help them, her short temper hurting her relationships with those in the building.

“Not in their faces, but in their faces,” says Saintil, smiling that engaging smile while Daun-Barnett adds extra details.

So Daun-Barnett fired her. She had lost her sense of boundaries. She was making everyone around her mad. And in that same conversation, Daun-Barnett told Saintil he wanted to sign up to be her mentor to get her back on track for her degree, which would make Saintil the first in her family to hold a higher education diploma.

“I am not entirely sure how or why Joanna was open to my offer, but she took me up on it,” Daun-Barnett says. “And we have worked together ever since.”

Since has been nothing short of remarkable. She is now a UB success story after negotiating through a 2.0 GPA, losing her scholarships, enduring an unsteady and sometimes troubling family life, stretching herself too thin working multiple jobs, and working through what she called “learned helplessness” during her speech at UB’s African, Latino, Asian and Native American’s Celebration of Achievement. She is now enrolled in GSE’s Department of Counseling, School and Educational Psychology and serves as a graduate assistant in the Office of Student Success, Tutoring and Academic Support Services.

And it wouldn’t have happened without the informal counseling curveball Daun-Barnett threw at her, Saintil says.

“At first, when I got fired, I was ‘What is going on?’ And then when Dr. Nate reached out to me and said, ‘I want to mentor you,’ it was like ‘What is going on with this man? Why would he fire me and then ask to mentor me?’”

Daun-Barnett has a quick answer. He saw potential in Saintil that he seldom sees. He uses superlatives and absolute terms reserved for rare cases. “Joanna Saintil is different,” Daun-Barnett says. “I am a different educator because of our relationship.”

Daunt-Barnett understood her anger over the Bennett students’ obstacles clearly came from her deep compassion and empathy for those high school students she signed on to help.

Those asking what Saintil and her partnership with Daun-Barnett says about UB’s higher education culture have several options. Saintil understands and embraces her power as a role model for students of all ages. She a great example of UB’s new breed of leaders, the ones destined to influence their surroundings and professions. The ongoing friendship with Daun-Barnett is another instance of how many UB educators sign up to be life-changing mentors, propelling the academic orbits of promising UB students well beyond the classroom.

Maybe as engaging as any, Saintil’s story is valuable because she is a fascinating person, another story of someone who faced adversity and, with a little help from her UB friends, took her young life on an about-face. Daun-Barnett has a quick answer when asked why he offered to be Saintil’s mentor, despite all the reasons to give up on her.

“She is charismatic,” he says. “People are drawn to her.”

These days, Saintil shows all the signs of someone destined to make a difference in the world around her. She has direction now, and is busy working hard on acquiring the skills she needs to earn her goal.

“The question Dr. Nate asked me right away was, ‘How do you want to make a difference?’” says Saintil, who is taking her undergraduate degree from the Department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies and enhancing it by entering UB’s counseling, school and educational psychology program. “And that question forced me to think. Hmm. I want to have an effect on students from the same background as me. Students that people believe aren’t worth coming to UB.”

Saintil says she wants to be a high school counselor. But because Daun-Barnett convinced her to have a long-term plan, she eventually wants to be a school principal.

“I know this sounds crazy, but so many men have done it,” she says. “So I could, too. Make the transition from school counselor to school principal.”

Daun-Barnett says he has seen Saintil’s charisma in action dating back to her days of shaking things up at Bennett High School. That charisma was on grand display — a wiser and more refined version — when she gave her brief, but stirring, ALANA speech. She walked to the podium after she was introduced as the recipient of the GSE Dean’s Scholarship for Academic and Inclusive Excellence.

“I look around this room and see so many different faces,” Saintil said that day, projecting a blend of determination and nervousness, and using just the right hand motions. “All of whom share a story of struggle, perseverance and success against adversity.

“I was afraid of what life contained for me on the first day of college life, what I would call the first day of the rest of my life.

“Today, however, I see a completely different person as I walk out the doors of tomorrow. I see a strong, black, independent woman,” she said to prolonged applause and shouts.

“I’m going to repeat that for y’all one more time,” she continued in a speech that included a shoutout to “Dr. Nate” as a lifeline to success. “I see a strong, black independent woman that is not stoppable, and I will not stop until I reach every goal I set out to reach and then some.

“For so long, I had been conditioned to not believe in myself and my own ability. Learned helplessness is something I continue to battle with every day. From the high school teacher who told me I would work at McDonald’s for the rest of my life to my high school counselor telling me not to apply at UB because they don’t accept people like me. It has been hard for me to believe I deserve to be here. We all worked hard to be here.

“We often allow outside influences such as money, pride or familial pressures to shape our future. Little do we know that we are the ones hindering ourselves from our own success.

“If a child believes they have little or no control over their success or failure, he has little belief he can improve his own situation.”

It was vintage Saintil, and when she called this moment a beginning, it resonated with Daun-Barnett, who praises her for “listening and learning” through good and bad times.

Two years after she was fired, Saintil accepted Daun-Barnett’s offer to serve as a lead intern on a team of 36 at the same school she was dismissed from as a sophomore.    

“That was the best decision I have ever made as a supervisor and project developer,” Daun-Barnett says. “Joanna has been a role model.”