This month, Bernal will begin her freshman year at Northeastern University, a hard-won achievement for the 19-year-old from Roslindale.
After finishing the 8th grade, Bernal was selected in a lottery to attend MATCH Charter Public High School in Boston. The teen resisted at first, annoyed by the school’s uniform requirement, but at her mother’s urging, she enrolled in MATCH for the 9th grade.
The rigorous academic environment at MATCH shocked Bernal — in middle school, she had grown accustomed to skipping class and neglecting homework.
While these careless study habits earned her passing grades in middle school, they weren’t good enough at MATCH. After her first year, Bernal was asked to repeat the 9th grade. “I was really ticked off,” she said of her setback. “I cried and I was disappointed in myself.”
MATCH also gave Bernal the option of transferring to public school, where her grades were high enough to advance to the 10th grade.
Instead, the resolute teen decided to stick with MATCH.
“I felt like MATCH was a great atmosphere,” Bernal said. “Even though I hated its rules I knew that it was good, that it would prepare me the best for college. I didn’t want to give up on myself,” she continued. “MATCH was a hard school, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.”
Failure was a wake-up call for Bernal, who grew up watching her mother struggle to make ends meet. Realizing that she wanted a different kind of life — one in which she could financially care for her mother — Bernal decided to take school seriously.
“I was playing games,” she said. “And if I kept it up I wasn’t going to be able to get into college and I wasn’t going to be anybody ... And I didn’t want that.”
So in her second freshman year, Bernal studied, completed her homework, stayed after school each evening, asked for help and raised her hand in class. Her hard work paid off — Bernal made the honor roll the entire year.
Her academic success continued into sophomore year, as she aced the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), the statewide standardized exam, and received the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship for eight semesters of free tuition at any Massachusetts state college or university.
Even with a heavy schoolwork load, Bernal was also captain of the dance team, played on the girls’ basketball team and participated in track and cross-country.
By her senior year, Bernal was even more determined to succeed. She took college-level courses at Boston University — Advanced Literature, Psychology and Macroeconomics, as well as a class to prepare for college applications.
“Every single day I’d wake up in the morning and say, ‘let’s go, let’s go,’ ” she said. “I’d come home from school at 8 or 9 at night, still have homework to do, and I’d want to go to bed, but I’d tell myself, ‘you got six months left of this, just do it, just do it.’ ”
Northeastern University was her dream school because its criminal justice program is one of the top in the country. “Northeastern was my reach school,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t going to get accepted.” But Bernal, who wants to become an FBI agent, also had financial considerations — she worried that the university’s hefty tuition was unaffordable, even if she was granted admission.
However, Bernal was accepted. With the help of the Ujima Scholarship, awarded to select minority students at Northeastern, and financial aid, her tuition expenses will be completely covered. “I just started crying, and I just started crying some more. I was just hysteric.”
As she moves on to the next stage of her life, Bernal still holds the words of MATCH’s founding principle close to her heart —“perseverance, courage, and discipline.”
“I have to take advantage of the opportunities that I have, knowing that tomorrow’s never really promised,” she said. “I have to live every day like it’s my last.”