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Haitian-American teacher receives presidential award in science

Junior Bernadin, Ron Clark Academy dean of students, IT director and house system expert, received the Presidential Award for Excellence in STEM. (Photo courtesy of Ron Clark Academy)

NEW YORK — As Junior Bernadin sat with his students last month in a classroom at the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, confetti suddenly rained down on him. Seconds later, he watched as his name flashed on television during a National Science Foundation broadcast announcing the country’s presidential award winners for the year.

“It was surreal, sitting there with my students in the classroom as they were watching the virtual honor and announcement,” Bernadin says. “When they said that this was the highest honor you can receive in STEM mentoring in the nation, I thought to myself, ‘Oh, my god.’”

Bernadin was awarded a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM). Awardees have been told to stay tuned regarding official invitations to the White House due to COVID restrictions.  

For Bernardin, who comes from humble beginnings, the honor is all too fitting considering the role science has played in his life.

“Technology has always been such a key part of my life and I consider it my first love,” Bernadin told The Haitian Times days after the announcement. “I enjoy sharing that with students and also helping them understand why their presence in the STEM field matters.”

Bernadin, who lives in Atlanta, has been teaching at the Ron Clark Academy for 13 years, serving officially as the dean of students and instructional technology director. He also serves in coaching roles at the school, which allowed him to join other Haitian-Americans who won national awards in STEM, including Tayana Thadal. 

His ultimate goal, Bernadin says, is to help students develop a passion for STEM fields through resources and knowledge he did not have access to growing up.

Strong Haitian heritage 

Bernadin, 40, was raised in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. His father, Saint Felix, was a taxi driver from the southwest port city of Les Cayes in Haiti. His mother, Marie, originally from Jacmel, worked first in a factory and later became a certified nursing assistant. 

Friends and colleagues say Bernadin loves being Haitian-American and shares his background with everyone he can.

“He is so proud to be Haitian and if you’re around him for more than 15 minutes, you’ll know that that’s his heritage,” says Kim Bearden, co-founder of Ron Clark Academy. “He’ll tell a lot of stories about his upbringing and how he grew up in a school that necessarily didn’t have the resources that he longed to have, but he loved to learn.”

Bernadin is the cornerstone of the school in a variety of ways, Bearden says. After COVID-19 caused schools to cancel in-person classes, she says that he was vital in ensuring the students were able to access virtual learning platforms the following day.

“Junior is our right hand, and we just could not do this school without him,” she says. “He’s the coolest nerd we know. I think he breaks stereotypes that you can be this powerful, energetic life force, but just get really excited about sitting at a computer and coding.”

Bernadin spends extensive hours at the school working overtime with the kids. In addition to leading an after-school coding class, he coaches the robotics, Step and MATHCounts Video Challenge national champion teams. 

“I was not surprised he would receive such a recognition because he is relentless,” says Gina Coss, a former colleague. “In the footage that I saw on social media, you could see he was experiencing pure joy being surrounded by the children, and that is so him.”

Sharing love of learning with students

Ultimately, his colleagues say, Bernadin’s passion for his students shines through in every program he undertakes. He is motivated by seeing them move forward into STEM-related professions.

“He just has a deep, spiritual love of the children and colleagues, but he also has fire,” Coss says. “He has that dream for his students to be highly successful adults in whatever form that takes and he wants them to recognize the success within themselves.”

Supporting diversity in tech, digital realms

Bernardin’s students have gone on to academically-rigorous public schools in Atlanta, while others have gone on to nationally prestigious boarding schools.

He says he is continually motivated to expand careers in STEM for Black students and to encourage them to pursue recognition like the presidential award he just received. 

“I’m thankful I can show students and other kids, especially of Haitian descent, this is possible and what we do best is shine in the face of adversity,” Bernadin says. “We work hard and we represent ourselves and our families in future legacies that are yet to come.”

In addition to the teams he currently leads, Bernadin has a variety of projects lined up for the future. One entails working with non-fungible tokens (NFTs), the digital items connected to blockchain that have gained much visibility recently.

His NFT project, called Diversity Dolls, is inspired by his 3-year-old daughter, Amira, who is Haitian, Jamaican and Chinese. 

Working in collaboration with an artist, the dolls will represent a variety of races and ethnicities. Some will also have conditions like autism, cerebral palsy and hearing impairments. Proceeds from the collection’s sales will go to organizations raising awareness for these causes.

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