“The vision of my school was to empower young persons who couldn’t master the linguistics field, so that they could function and serve the needs of the country.”
By Jarryl Bryan
Many students look back on their High School days with regret at having left behind teachers who were like family to them, but somehow such loving sentiments do not normally extend to their foreign language teachers.
This, says our latest ‘special person’ Cecily Bernard, is because the methods used to teach foreign languages in the public school system are of such a nature that some students are easily disheartened and come to regard the subjects with dread.
Bernard, the founder and Director of the Language Service Institute, located at 47 Croal Street and Austin Place, is not only an passionate linguist who has mastered speaking Spanish and Portuguese, in addition to her native English, she is also a former diplomat with Guyana’s Foreign Service, and at one point even a model striding out on the runway.
But most of all, the proud product and resident of Tucville, Georgetown, in her own selfless and warm-hearted way, has sought to give back to the land of her birth, through constructive sessions aimed at mentoring youths and providing them with leadership training to one day be community and national leaders.
HARD WORK IN HER DNA
Cecily Bernard was born on July 6th, 1965 to Phillip and Eula Bernard. Proud of her working class roots – her father rose to be the Chief Fire Officer in Guyana, while her mother was a head teacher- Bernard has always maintained that hard work was in her DNA.
Though her father passed away in 1981, her mother is still alive. She credits her mom, at the time a school teacher, for ensuring that they were indoctrinated into the school system at an early age and making certain that they could attain not only a premier Secondary School, but one that could instill Christian values.
“She wanted me to go to St. Rose’s, which wasn’t the top Secondary School at the time, but she wanted me to have a Catholic education. So even though I had marks for Queen’s College, I went to St. Roses.”
According to Bernard, her Alma Mater’s motto of service to God and to man had a profound impact on her way of thinking. In addition, St. Rose’s offered classes such as moral education and the mandated community outreaches at convents and orphanages.
She recollected that as far back as 1980, her school had launched a hinterland programme, which sought to impart agricultural knowledge to Amerindian developing communities.
“My St. Rose’s days are very special to me. I remember the assemblies and the songs, a lot of which were about service. Our emblem was serviam (Latin for ‘I will serve’) and it is from there that came the whole idea of serving.”
Bernard left St. Rose’s in 1983 after completing sixth form, with every intention of attending University of Guyana, but her parents had separated since 1972, leaving her mother as a single-parent, and she (Cecily) was forced to make the tough decision of entering the world of work.
“She needed a break, so I entered a one-year stint at the Guyana National Energy Authority (a forerunner to today’s Guyana Energy Agency) as a statistical clerk.”
She attributes that one-year stint to opening her eyes to the need to further her education. After leaving her first job, Bernard attended the University of Guyana for two and a half years, doing a triple major in French, Spanish and Portuguese studies.
“I received an offer from the Government of Guyana to go to Brazil, so I aborted the course at UG and went to Brazil to do Portuguese language and literature as an undergraduate.”
Before leaving, however, Bernard did a stint as a model for the Rotaract club, of which she was a part. The theme for her catwalk appearances was retro. ‘Back in time’ was something Bernard pulled off with flair and aplomb, but the activities were also to serve as a fund-raiser for the Rotaract.
‘A FUN EXPERIENCE’
She described living in Brazil from 1988 to 1995 as a fun experience. She had left Guyana in a batch of seven – five boys and another girl – for one of the most beautiful destinations in the world, but stated that only the girls in the group possessed the courage to really travel and sightsee.
“The boys were scared and made excuses to not come with us. We did a lot of bussing. Buses travel from one end to the other end. We saw a lot of Brazil, me and the other girls, and we even went to the neighbouring countries.”
Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay were not missed out in Bernard’s travels, but she nevertheless remained focused on her original purpose. She attended the University of Ceará. Though she did not get the opportunity to study French and Spanish in her Brazilian programme, her previous Spanish studies in Guyana enabled her to converse fluently with other Spaniards in her continental travels.
Her Brazilian studies included Art, Literature and Latin. In 1990 she also did a Master’s in International Relations at the University of Brasília, so that by 1995 when she returned to Guyana, it was with a passion to serve.
“Upon returning I joined the foreign service for five years. I got the opportunity to go to Guatemala, for technical conferences and the United Nations headquarters in the United States of America.”
THE SKY IS THE LIMIT
She subsequently launched the Language Service Institute in 2000 and hit the ground running. According to her, from the get-go she started pushing her students, ensuring that they were aware that the sky was the limit.
“Through my business, I had the sense of empowering people. The sky is the limit here. They can do things as they feel led to do. There are parameters, but nobody tells you that to get to this point you have to go this way.”
The school not only teaches all the languages of the Americas – Spanish, French, Portuguese and Dutch – but offers translating, interpreting and editing on an individual and corporate level.
“When we started we always had the sense that we were not just doing business. Languages are my passion, my area, my field of study. My aim was always to bring to the table something more than that.”
“From an objective standpoint, the vision was really to empower young persons who couldn’t master this field, so that they could function and serve the needs of the country.”
But from that idealistic beginning evolved something much more, as Bernard saw the unique opportunity that had been presented to her, to mould the minds of youths into the minds of leaders.
Leaders come in all shapes, sizes, gender, ethnicity, but there is one common feature that unites all great leaders and that is a mentor who would, for a time, be that one person with influence over a hungry, young mind.
Some mentors have used that power to point their charges down the wrong path, while others have had their influence deliberately misunderstood by protégés bent on wrongdoing.
But mentors such as Cecily Bernard have been unequivocal successes and have served to become role models to generations of students.
In 2011, her school entered into a formal partnership Bakke Graduate University, a Theological University headquartered in Seattle, Washington, that offers business and Theological Degrees.
“Through that partnership, the mentoring and training in transformational leadership came about. From there we not only articulated the model for the school, we also organized seminars to disseminate the message.”
Bernard pointed to why leadership played such a big role in business. According to her, running a business was not just about developing a skill set, it was about having character.
“That is one of the issues we had with leaders in Guyana. The character side is wanting. And with the ministry, you would find pastors coming out of seminars able to preach, but the rest of the week, they do not know how to plan, how to budget.”
So all aspects of what it takes to build a leader are handed down to the eager students during the seminars, which are normally held in the Language Institute’s self-contained conference rooms.
These seminars, which are run by Bernard and lecturers brought in from Bakke University, are made possible through a grant from the University.
Bernard, whose passion for the foreign languages not only led to her setting up a foreign language-centred school, but has led her to going out of her way to ensure that students could master the art of linguistics.
While she applauded the fact that foreign languages such as Spanish, French and lately, Portuguese are being taught in the public school system, she is of the view that the methodology in teaching could be different in order to bridge the physiological gap between student and teacher.
“It is not a problem of the emphasis of foreign languages in schools students struggle with, it’s the methodology…because most students come out of school not liking foreign subjects.”
She stated that students coming to her would often say that they did not like the teacher or the teacher did not like them. According to her, the methodology employed by her school was of a different class altogether.
“We follow a methodology that engages the student. The teacher is the facilitator of the class and the student is the focus. So it is a student-centred classroom.”
“There is a lot of peer work, a lot of group work; there are a lot of conversations and in our classrooms, even if the teacher is someone bilingual, we try to incorporate our foreign students.”
She also revealed one of the secrets to her students absorbing their designated language of choice as effectively as they do. Some of the language service centre’s lecturers, auxiliary staff and students are foreigners – natives of countries like Cuba, Venezuela and Brazil – who are encouraged to speak in their native language, something Bernard says the local students like, as well as serving as a help for them.
The school also utilizes an initiative called E-companions- audio and video materials intended to boost students when not in the classroom.
According to the director, that material can be downloaded to the student’s phones for immediate use.
However, Bernard expressed the view that full immersion into foreign language studies was the best option for anyone willing to pursue languages.
She also offered encouragement to aspiring linguists who had fallen by the wayside in their quest to learn another language.
“Linguistics is such an asset. If you have another language, you’re more marketable. So you want to pursue that, you don’t want to give up.”
In view of the rapid regionalization occurring throughout South America and the Caribbean, the endeavours of diplomatic-minded and influential persons such as Cecily Bernard are of vital importance. Of that there is little doubt.
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