There was a time Laura Bernitsky couldn’t speak in front of a crowd.
She’d get so nervous she’d almost cry. It would well up inside her, the same feeling she had when she was much younger and her older brothers, Alex and Will, would chase her around their house shaking their pet snakes.
Bernitsky hates snakes. Still does. But she doesn’t hate public speaking.
She can stand undaunted in front of classmates and families visiting campus and tell them what she knows, what she doesn’t know and what she believes to be true.
She is no longer afraid. She credits HPU for that. She came in as a scholar. She has blossomed into a leader, a fundraiser, a student ambassador and an event organizer. She helped make HPU a better place. And HPU noticed.
This month, the school selected Bernitsky as its Extraordinary Leader for April.
It’s been quite the journey for her. While at HPU, Bernitsky navigated the world’s widest river and hiked a trail that bills itself as a trip to the top of the world. But really, her journey has been incredibly personal.
It started with her in purple. She is proud of that.
Finding Her Passion, Finding Herself
For three years, Bernitsky has taken hundreds of families on campus tours. She’d be in her purple shirt, unveiling the jewels of the campus with every stop.
She calls being a University Ambassador a “transformative experience.”
For years, whenever she spoke in public, she’d told herself repeatedly, “Make it through.” But because of the tours, where she had to think on her feet and speak to people she didn’t know, she overcame that. It helped her realize why HPU has become her second home.
Four years ago, Bernitsky arrived at HPU as a Presidential Scholar from her home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She didn’t know a soul. But she found her niche.
She participated in the Honors Program and made the Dean’s List six times. She became president of the Health Occupation Students of America (HOSA) and co-president of the National Society of Leadership and Success.
She helped raise $3,000 for the American Heart Association at HOSA’s Protect a Heart of Gold Ball, and she became the ritual coordinator for her sorority, Alpha Gamma Delta, where she organized events for 150 people.
She represented the Biology Club in the Student Government Association and was inducted into the Order of Omega, the leadership honor society for members of HPU’s Greek organizations.
At the same time, she discovered what’s hard to put on paper. She became more patient, more understanding. She found friends – and her passion.
Her parents are both doctors; she wants to become a dentist. In the fall, she’ll enroll in the School of Dentistry at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“It would be harder to leave if I wasn’t excited about the next step,” Bernitsky says. “But leaving my friends, that’ll be the hardest. High Point has been a big part of me, and dental school is its own monster. But I’m well prepared.”
Where the Sloths Live
Bernitsky sees her parents as the moral rudders of her life.
Her father, an ophthalmologist, helped her love medicine. Bernisky watched him work and assisted him with minor eye surgery. He also helped her love nature.
The two often explore the La Luz Trail, an arduous eight-mile hike near Albuquerque that goes up the west face of the Sandia Mountains. The trail bills itself as taking hikers to the top of the world.
Her mother, a former urologist, helped her love service. The two of them spent two weeks along the Amazon River working in eight villages with Medical Ministries International, a Christian non-profit.
It was the summer of Bernitsky’s freshmen year. She woke up to a crowing rooster and worked from sunrise to way past dark in places with no working showers. She helped turn empty schoolhouses and elevated tents into dental clinics.
She held pet sloths that felt as heavy as a sleepy one-year-old, and she met children who never brushed their teeth.
At HPU, she had participated in free dental clinics across North Carolina where she’d see long lines of patients, a telltale sign of a tough economy. But what she saw along the Amazon humbled her. She saw poverty she felt shouldn’t exist.
It made her appreciate the need for service. It also made her appreciate what she had.
That includes friendship.
Forever Memories, Forever Friends
For nearly four years, they’ve been inseparable: Bernitsky; Gabrielle Hayes from Asheville, North Carolina; Brianne Kaufman from Rochester, New York; and Calla Telzrow from Cleveland, Ohio.
They met their freshmen year. They’re fellow biology majors. And they share much.
Today, they’re doing all kinds of things together before graduation in May scatters them nationwide. But they know the memories they created together will last forever, thanks to HPU.
“My friends,” Bernitsky says, “they became my family.”