When EliAnna Bermundez, a middle schooler at the time, was confronted by a student at her new, primarily white school demanding, “Go back to where you came from,” it was a jarring experience that would change the course of her life. The student was trying to tell her to go to Mexico, and EliAnna, ethnically Puerto Rican, decided to educate her peers about diversity and her culture.
“I found that it was in the household, that it was something that they were never taught. It wasn’t something that they chose not to learn,” she recalls.
With permission from her social studies teacher, EliAnna did a presentation on Puerto Rico for the whole school, around 500 people, and with the help of her mother and grandmother handed out 500 homemade pastelillos, a savory meat pie popular in the island nation.
Afterwards, and with a better understanding, the offending student apologized. EliAnna was asked to do the presentation every year for the next several years, driven by seeing the permanent perspective shift in the students.
“From that point on, I made a promise to myself that any chance I had, I would teach others about my culture and about other cultures to make them aware, because it’s not their fault,” she says. “If they’re willing to learn, I’m willing to teach.”
Since then, she has spoken to and led conversations with schools, banks and other companies, at company trainings and conferences, and more. Some highlights for EliAnna were being the keynote speaker for Women2Women and speaking to the students of Milton Hershey School. In the beginning, she was shocked that not everyone could see or had experienced racism.
“I’ve learned that there’s two different types of ignorance: the ignorance of not knowing because they were never taught and that they choose to be. That’s what I’ve learned from these discussions,” she states. “The only way we grow is together, not individually, when there is a problem.”
During her last two years of high school, EliAnna co-founded a project though Youth Volunteer Corps of Reading called Stand Together Against Racism (STAR), an initiative designed to start conversations centered around racism and racial equity. She met her mentor and future STAR advisor, Christi Terefenko on a Zoom call during the beginning stages of the program.
“After the death of George Floyd, we were hearing that our students that we work with didn’t know what to do. They were stuck in their homes, and they were having all of these massive emotions. We decided to run a program through the summer of 2020 via Zoom, where we got several dozen youth from our county involved in conversations about race and racism and racial justice and what that looks like,” Christi recalls.
This program eventually became STAR. Recently, EliAnna helped create a documentary about the group, leading discussions after screenings.
“When she speaks, and when she stands up in front of a room, she has a way of drawing people in. It’s really an exceptional ability,” Christi says. “[When she accepted a changemaker award last year], she gave an impromptu five-minute speech that literally had everyone in the audience crying.”
Today, EliAnna is 18 years old and halfway through her first year as a nursing student at Messiah University, where her older sister also attends. She has brought her enthusiasm for community involvement to campus, joining many different clubs and activities including La Alianza Latina (LAL), a gospel choir, a dance worship team, a leadership group and more. Her goal? Become a First Assistant RN and a missionary nurse.
Her motivation comes from seeing family members with health issues and wanting to care for them. She also keeps her grandmother in mind as she works towards her dream.
“In Puerto Rico, back when she was young, it was a tradition that kids didn’t go to school. They stayed home to help in the household or on the farm. She got out in third grade, but her dream was always to become a nurse. So, I’m kind of following in her footsteps, as well, and learning from her,” EliAnna adds.
EliAnna will have a chance to take her skills abroad this year as she volunteers in Zambia, the Dominican Republic and Spain. The last of these will be a six-month stint during which she will take classes and do clinical work at a local hospital in Granada, Spain.
Aside from that, EliAnna looks forward to more speaking events with Women2Women and leading a discussion for LAL on cultural identity. Also on her agenda for this year is putting together a full-day STAR convention with nearby colleges.
Crediting her mom for her life of service, EliAnna recalls volunteering with Girl Scouts, American Clean-up and with her church from a very young age.
“My mother helped me understand what it is to help others that are in need or who might not even ask. Sometimes you just do it,” EliAnna states.
Her mom, one of five children, is the only one to get a Bachelor’s degree in her family. Despite experiencing racism throughout her life, she has always shown her daughters that things can be accomplished in spite of the barriers in their way.
“Basically, my mom opened the door for me and opened my eyes to all these things that I could do with that concept of ‘do what no one else can do or do what other people aren’t motivated to initiate,’” she says. “Not every issue is going to be solved by one person. I can’t conquer the whole world, but small beginnings make big changes. I live by that.”
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