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

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After growing up hungry in a poor Haitian neighborhood, Junior Bernard makes good on his dream to come to the U.S., and get an education.

Junior Bernard in Francis Hall at Alvernia University

Junior Bernard pictured in Francis Hall at Alvernia University

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.

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:
Baccalaureate Mass & Hooding Ceremony 10:30 a.m., Physical Education Center
Commencement 1 p.m., Physical Education Center
Commencement Livestream
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.

ALVERNIA is a thriving university that empowers students through real-world learning to discover their passion for life, while providing the education to turn what they love into lifetimes of career success and personal fulfillment, helping them make the world a better place. Situated on a scenic 121-acre suburban campus in historic Berks County, Pa., the university of more than 3,000 students is conveniently located near Philadelphia (60 miles) and within an easy drive of New York, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. With a College of Arts and Sciences and College of Professional Studies, Alvernia today offers more than 50 undergraduate majors and minors and a range of graduate programs at the master’s and doctoral levels through its School of Graduate and Adult Education. Satellite sites are located in Philadelphia and Schuylkill County. As one of only 22 Franciscan institutions in the country, Alvernia’s focus on caring for each other, the environment and the community are joined with a challenging educational experience to provide an unparalleled environment to grow, develop and mature as a person and professional.

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Carey Manzolillo
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