December

Alvernia Graduate Rises from Poverty to Earn Degree, Speak at Commencement

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Junior Bernard (24), originally from Haiti, will offer remarks to the Alvernia University Class of 2014 before crossing the stage to receive his Bachelor of Arts degree in communication during Winter Commencement, Dec. 13, 1 p.m., on the university’s main campus.

Born into poverty, Bernard lived most of his life without electricity or running water. “Most of our parents had no jobs,” says Bernard. “Starvation killed children right in front of my eyes and it was always a struggle to find food, let alone having good clothing on our skins.”

But Bernard worked hard for a better life. He first left home for the Dominican Republic, but finding things no better there, he returned home with a desire to earn an American education and make a difference in the world. “When the people in my neighborhood heard that, they laughed at me. They called me names and said that it was impossible,” says Bernard. “They said we would all die in poverty. But I refused to believe this. I told myself that if I was going to die in poverty anyway, I might as well die trying to get out of it. I refused to believe that my circumstances would define who I would become.”

For three years, Bernard studied English out of a dictionary and practiced by talking to Americans visiting his hometown – until he met Bill Barr, a New Jersey native who offered to help him make his way to the U.S. But fate intervened on the day Bernard visited his nation’s capital, and instead of filling out paperwork Bernard found himself lucky to survive a deadly earthquake that killed over half a million people in less than a minute.

Thinking that his opportunity had passed, Bernard returned home and wrote a letter about his survival that was immediately shared on the Internet. “People shared it with their friends and families, and the next thing I knew, an American university – Alvernia University - reached out to me, saying that they’d read my letter and that they wanted to help,” said Bernard.

Four years later, Bernard is set to graduate – having already written a book about his life, and poised to begin management training with Penske Truck Leasing less than a month after receiving his bachelor’s degree from Alvernia.

"Junior is a very impressive young man,” says Art Vallely, executive vice president at Penske. “He has all the qualities we at Penske look for when hiring for our management training program and he'll be a great addition to the Penske Team."

Sometime down the road, Bernard hopes to return to Haiti to inspire others and to help create jobs. “I have many relatives that have hope because of what I have become,” says Bernard. “I dream of going back and helping change the lives of thousands. Why? Because now I can.”

About Winter Commencement at Alvernia University:
• Student Speaker: Junior Bernard
• Honorary Degree Recipient/Speaker: Sandy Solmon, founder of Sweet Street Desserts
• 215 graduates (14 associates, 147 bachelor’s, 50 master’s, 4 doctorates) studied at several locations including the main campus, Philadelphia Center, Schuylkill Center and other off-site locations.

Junior Bernard's full speech:

"7 years ago, I was this poor boy who grew up in a popular Haitian neighborhood with no electricity, no running water. Most of our parents had no jobs. Starvation killed children right in front of my eyes. It was always a struggle to find food, let alone to have good clothes on our skins. Having enough of our misery, I escaped from home to go to the Dominican Republic, but it was to experience the worst of life. Now, I had to beg the streets of a foreign land to survive. I made my way home as a total disaster.

When I looked at the future, all I saw was darkness. I became scared. I became scared that I would never amount to anything in life. My dream was to come to America in hope to obtain an education one day. When the people in my neighborhood heard that, they laughed at me. They called me names and said that it was impossible. They said, 'We would die in poverty.'' But I refused to believe this. 'If I am going to die in poverty anyway, I might as well die trying to get out of it,'' I said to them because I refused to believe that my circumstances would define who I would become.

Ladies and gentlemen, I studied English out of a dictionary. To practice, I followed any American visitors I’d see around my hometown. After three years of searching for help and praying to God again and again, but only to face more failures and countless rejections, in 2010, I finally met a wonderful man named Billy Barr who offered to bring me to America. From my hometown, I went to the capital to prepare my paperwork, but, while I was there, I experienced a deadly earthquake, which killed over half a million of my people in less than a minute. My hope was gone. I was devastated.

I returned home thinking that I’d never get another chance to become anything in life. Deep within, I had a strong desire to share my story of survival with all my foreign friends via the Internet. And I did. That letter went places I never thought possible. People shared it with their friends and families. Next thing I knew, an American university reached out to me, saying that they've read my letter and that they wanted to help.

I refused to believe it, but before I knew it, I was in a plane coming to America. And that university was Alvernia University. Its professors and staff members took me in. They invested in me, love me and care for me. Today, I am standing before you not as the beggar in the streets of the Dominican Republic. I am standing before you not as the hopeless boy they thought would never amount to anything, but I am standing before you as a man full of hope and a bright future.

Not only am I graduating with a phenomenal degree, but also, during my time here, I’ve been able to write an entire book on my traumatic life journey. All of that would not be possible, first of all, without the grace of God, Alvernia University and the Barr family who’d been with me since day one.

Sometimes, when we see people suffering in the streets, we don’t know how much they’ve dying to get some help. And those people might make the best of the opportunities you give to them. Let’s not ignore them. Please help them. Today, I have more than 20 relatives who have hope because of what I have accomplished. I dream of going back home and helping change the lives of thousands. Why? Because now I can, and, thanks to Alvernia, my life will never be the same again!

My dear classmates, as you go out into the real world, I’d like you to remember two important messages:

1- Hold on to God. There will be time when you can’t make it on your own, but God will help you make it through anything. I am a living witness of this.

2- And secondly, one thing I learn during my journey is that there are no limitations in life. Allow yourself to dream as big as your mind wants you to. It doesn't matter what your circumstances are. Have faith. If you find it challenging to have faith, it’s okay. Just visualize what you want, take action and persist! Persist! I guarantee you that, if you persist, sooner or later, you’ll see the day of your victory!

Thank you for this honor."

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