Bernita Johnson is shy and reserved by nature. She readily admits that public speaking would never make the list of her many hobbies. But on an overcast Thursday evening she bravely addressed a crowd of thousands at Traylor Stadium in Rosenberg, Texas – a suburb of Houston. Her audience included faculty, parents, fellow students and few special guests. Many others watched on social media. Bernita looked regal in her cap and gown – a blue-and-gray ensemble featuring a gleaming stole plus gold-and-white tassels.
Her speech was not voluntary. It was compulsory.
After all she’s the Salutatorian of her graduating class.
During her presentation Bernita shared some of her challenges over the past five years. Her odyssey includes displacement and other personal obstacles. But throughout her adversities she maintained a firm focus on her academic goals and never forgot a message her parents conveyed years earlier: “Always focus on solutions, not problems.”
Bernita ranked No. 2 in her 2021 senior class of 433 students at Lamar Consolidated High School with a 4.5 grade-point average. She earned several scholarship offers, including from historically-black Howard University. She eventually accepted a full-ride grant to the University of Texas-Austin, where she will attend this fall.
Bernita’s goal is to become a cardiologist. Her story is truly heartwarming.
SMALL TOWN, BIG DREAMS
Bernita, 18, grew up in Elmshall, Dominica, a small village southeast of the capital of Roseau. Her parents, Armour and Bernicia Johnson, hail from Marigot in the northeast. The couple has another daughter, Amber, who is four years older than Bernita.
Armour Johnson says Bernita displayed her ambition at a young age.
“Before she was 5 years old she said she wanted to be a nurse,” says Johnson, who added with a chuckle: “Her sister told her that doctors make more money than nurses, so after that Bernita said she wanted to be a heart doctor.”
Unlike most young children who look forward to play time or watching television after school, Bernita always made homework a priority.
“When she came home from school she would always do her homework first, even before she changed her school uniform,” her father says.
Bernita’s mom added: “You know how some children cry when their parents drop them off at school? Well she never cried. She loved school.”
COMING TO AMERICA
In July of 2016, Bernita was sent to Texas to stay with relatives and continue her education. She was in the eighth grade at the time. She attended Lamar Junior High for one year, then went on to Lamar Consolidated High School.
“It was a culture shock when I first came here,” Bernita admits. “It’s a whole different system. For instance, in Dominica when the teacher enters the room we all have to stand. Here, we didn’t have to do that. Also we don’t wear uniforms here.”
Bernita eventually adjusted to the American system and immersed herself in as many extra-curricular activities as possible. She joined Student Council and Technological Students Association, among other groups. She even joined the wrestling team.
“I really liked being in organizations,” she says. “They helped me build leadership skills.”
But although her school activities were in full swing, her home life in Texas became tumultuous. She eventually moved in with the family of one of her school friends. It was a sometimes awkward transition, and although she could have easily returned to Dominica and the comforts of her childhood home, she forged on because her educational opportunities would be greater in the United States.
“My parents were very concerned about me,” she says. “But they knew it was best that I stay up here for my education.”
BRAVING THE STORM
In 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated Dominica. Elmshall, which is located next to a river, was heavily affected. The main road leading to the village was destroyed due to flooding and erosion. The Johnson home was not heavily damaged, but lack of accessibility forced the family to relocate to Castle Comfort, where they now rent.
Bernita’s parents run a small tire business, and the displacement after the storm affected their revenue and ability to provide consistent financial support to their daughter.
Bernita continued to excel academically despite the upheaval back home. But in July of 2020, amid COVID-19 and social unrest in the U.S. following the well-publicized death of George Floyd, her parents brought her back home.
“Everything they were seeing on TV was scary,” Bernita says. “Not just the virus, but all the protests and riots that were going on.”
Bernita was determined to complete her senior year despite the extreme social distance from her school. She continued her classwork by taking online courses starting last fall, then returned to Texas in April of 2021 when COVID restrictions began to loosen. After all the obstacles, she still graduated on time and with exemplary honors.
TIME TO REFLECT
Bernita’s graduation speech – which she wrote with no assistance – was poetic and poignant. Although she could have adopted a more sentimental theme, her message was optimistic and forward-looking.
She said in part: “In these four years of high school, change is one of the only constant variables in my life. Each year brought about momentous change, with the most common being the loss of stability in my home life. The rapid transformations in my life have helped me focus on the goals I want to achieve.”
Her concluding message to her fellow graduates was especially profound.
“Change is not just a phase you go through as young adults, but the essence of maturity as we enter the precariousness of adulthood.”
Bernita’s father made the trip from Dominica and was in the audience. He was amazed by his daughter’s stirring presentation.
“The speech was very touching,” he says. “Knowing that she is a very reticent person, she really surprised me.”
Bernita’s next step: Freshman orientation in July at the University of Texas. She will be in a new town. She will experience dormitory life for the first time.
More change is on the horizon.
Bernita’s full speech is below: