Bernita’s Story: A journey of change and growth

Bernita Johnson ranked No. 2 in her 2021 senior class of 433 students at Lamar Consolidated High School with a 4.5 grade-point average.

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.”

Bernita Johnson, center, celebrates with dad Armour and sister Amber following her graduation ceremony at Traylor Stadium in Rosenberg, Texas, on May 20, 2021.

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:

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8 Comments

  1. Garçon
    May 24, 2021

    Congratulations young lady on your achievements. I am particularly impressed that Howard offered you a full scholarship. I wish you God’s speed and all the best in your studies. Stay focused.
    However, I think DNO should now go out and write an article on all Dominica students, all over the world and in Dominica who survived Maria and covid-19 and who graduated, and that is for every successive year.

    ADMIN: We did not write this article it was submitted to us. Clearly, we can’t cover every student, if there is a student you believe is worth highlighting you can submit an article or bring their achievements to our attention. You can email us at news@dominicanewsonline.com.

    • Garçon
      May 25, 2021

      I was simply being sarcastic. The point is this is not news worthy.

      ADMIN: We did not miss your sarcasm we just did not respond in turn. We chose to let people know how they can also get their story told.

      • Dorsette J
        May 25, 2021

        I don’t expect nothing more from somebody who knows the young lady .. Your own people will see you moving up the ladder as a spork in their wheel .. this young lady deserves to be posted other Dominicans should try writing to d.n.o to celebrate there success but Dummy knee Cans always there to say the worst. D.N.O is not only for politics and car accident its to celebrate our successors as well .. Get accustom to it Garcon you and you goat mouth

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1
        • Garçon
          May 25, 2021

          I congratulated the young lady as a former educator in Dominica and a part time educator in the United States, and one who knows what education has done for me. However, it is just ridiculous how you all seek to boast about every little thing. People now use DNO to brag and everyone is following, so the simplest of things people shoot an article to DNO. My point is if all of us in Dominica and out of Dominica have to send in an article about our success DNO will have no space for anything else. By the way I do not know the kid but I am happy for her. Just stop this boasting thing.

  2. The Calabash
    May 24, 2021

    Yes, congrats. A full ride into a top institution. It’s quite competitive to get into UT, Austin. Great town, around the corner. Work hard and be safe.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0
  3. Academic
    May 24, 2021

    Congratulations to the Johnson’s family.
    Dad Armour is a very intelligent young man. Like daughter like father. Brilliant family.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0
  4. Mary Johnson
    May 23, 2021

    Congratulations Bernita!👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾🎊 I know your parents are extremely proud of you, and so am I. Continue to make your mark and claim your place in this world.
    Auntie Evelyn

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  5. Princess
    May 23, 2021

    Welldone Bernina, congratulations to you on your achievements, tenacity, and determination. Congratulations to your parents for giving such firm grounding to allow you to be the focused, hardworking young person you have turned out to be. Your goals are achievable and finger tips away. Welldone Team Johnson.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

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