In the narrow halls of King Hall on Tuesday evenings, a Queens College professor not only passes on her speech eloquence to students, but also a stronger passion to take on the professional world and all it has to offer.
Lisa Bernard has been a public speaking professor in the QC Media Studies department since 1999. She also taught oral communications in the Business and Liberal Arts department (BALA) for seven years. Her work on and off Queens College has earned her the love and respect from staff and students all over campus.
Norvilia Etienne was one of those students.
“Professor Bernard is the realest professor I’ve had at Queens College” Etienne said. “She’s truly a gem and takes it upon herself to not only teach public speaking very well but also to teach her students about real world experiences and expectations for the work environment, which is hard to come by at times.” Etienne said. Etienne, a psychology major, took Bernard’s class last semester as a junior.
Bernard was born in Queens, New York in 1961. She came from a very traditional household that didn’t believe in women going to college. Despite her family’s beliefs, she made it her mission to pursue a career in law and attended Union College, graduating with the class of 1979.
“I was the eldest of four siblings and 10 grandchildren, and I was the first generation to have attended college,” Bernard said. “I didn’t believe in staying home after high school and wanted to become a debater.”
Bernard’s passion for human connectedness started from a very young age and all what followed lead to her accomplishments today. In fact, she quit pursuing law and studied history, politics, and economics of Russia and the Soviet Union and now speaks fluent Russian -along with three other languages- before realizing her public speaking talent.
“My father was a politics junkie,” Bernard said, “When I was five years old one day, I was babbling about the president in front of my dad’s friends just like he does. Being the kind man that he was, he pulled me aside and told me ‘you know, in most parts of the world, you can’t criticize the president’.”
This surprised Bernard as she thought everyone had freedom of speech like in the United States where they were living.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Bernard said. “But I had an interest in human communication ever since.”
Several years later after graduating college, Bernard noticed that during the Cold War, many speakers came to Columbia University to speak about public issues. This was where she got her Master’s degree in International Affairs and decided to open a speaker’s bureau in which she can connect speakers to future events in other places around the world. This opportunity taught Bernard excellent communication skills and people started asking her for advice.
“I got asked if I could write an article about good speaking one day,” Bernard said, “Next thing I knew, people wanted me to speak and [they] wanted me to write speeches for them. And that’s when I started my company, Word of Mouth Inc.”
Bernard’s public speaking career took her to many places she never expected and experiencing a tragedy in her personal life also would serve as a leap toward an unexpected achievement. But that wasn’t the only highlight of Bernard’s fascinating career.
In 1997, Bernard’s husband and high school sweetheart, Dr. Robert L. Bernard, passed away at the age of 36 after a long battle with colon and liver cancer. Professor Bernard was in disbelief and thought long and hard about her two little girls, Chelsea and Sam ages 7 and 3 at the time, that were about to grow up without a father. She then made it her life’s mission to keep his legacy alive by creating the CHELISAM foundation in 1998.
CHELISAM offered scholarships for students in the medical field in honor of her late husband, four recipients were BALA students in Queens College. It was led by Bernard alongside her co-trustee John Haugh and her two daughters Chelsea Steinberg and Samantha Bernard.
Chelsea is now a public school teacher in Massachusetts and owes the foundation’s success to her mother’s hard work and dedication.
“I see all the women who have received, and succeeded, and I see the many different forms this scholarship has taken; I am in awe of the work,” she said. “In hindsight, I am not surprised, but I am envious of [my mother’s] unwavering energy and dedication to what she creates.”
After 18 years of serving talented students, and giving out 18 scholarships, CHELISAM accomplished and reached the end of its mission in the beginning of 2017. Bernard and her team agreed that their goals have been met and Dr. Bernard will always be remembered.
“I’m very proud of our accomplishments,” said Samantha Bernard, the youngest of two daughters now finishing her Columbia University Master’s degree in social work. “There are so many nonprofits out there and the fact that we were able to accomplish this goal with only a handful of people is remarkable.”
In Judaism, the number “18” holds strong significance. “Giving chai” means to give donations and gifts in multiples of 18. Chai also translates to the world “life” in Hebrew. Being followers of the Jewish faith, this number meant a tremendous amount to Bernard and her family.
Dr. Bernard’s birthday was on November 18th. He was battling cancer for 18 months and passed away at the age of 36, twice of 18. Professor Bernard has been teaching in Queens College for 18 years, and the foundation is coming to an end after 18 years.
“People who were born after my husband now know who he is,” Bernard said. “We have reached our goals and we made the world a better place.”
Professor Bernard is currently teaching public speaking at Queens College and is president of the speakers bureau SecuritySpeak. You can follow her online blog On the Contrary! Insights for Better Communication in which she offers all sorts of advice about the professional world and human interaction.
“Keep true to yourself because different people have different sensibilities,” Bernard said remembering some of her students that worry about finding a career to pursue.
“You must work, not only in the context of your life, but always consistent with who you are as a person. Seek advice from your professors, your community, and stick with the studies that are consistent with your sense of purpose.”