Colin Bernardo, BHS’16, is a humanitarian to the core. A member of the Huntington 100, he completed his bachelor’s in rehabilitative science with honors and is now entering the clinical component of Northeastern’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program. His stellar academic record, however, marks just the beginning of a university career driven by the desire to help others.
Bernardo’s experiential learning began with a Dialogue of Civilizations program in Bali, Indonesia, where he concentrated on combining Western and Eastern health and healing practices to enrich his future role as a physical therapist. His co-ops at Massachusetts General Hospital and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital provided important perspective on the trajectory of illness and recovery, from the early, acute stages of neurological diagnoses such as stroke, traumatic brain injury, and spinal cord injury to the rehabilitative phase, where his in-depth understanding of how the brain works guided his practice.
A leader off campus as well, he sought volunteer activities that extended the path to wellness, helping rowers and ski students with physical and mental disabilities regain the ability to participate in the sports they loved. His senior capstone project—the development of a 3-D scanning model to teach students the neuroanatomy of the brain—won a RISE Award for having the “greatest entrepreneurial potential” at RISE:2016. He also received the Mary Florence Stratton Award for distinguished service from the Bouvé College of Health Sciences.
Here, Bernardo discusses how his experience at Northeastern guided his personal and career growth.
You’ve stated that after you finish your DPT program you want to go in a “neurological direction” with physical therapy. What does that mean career-wise?
My second co-op was at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and I have been working there part-time ever since. Primarily I work with people who’ve had a spinal cord injury, a stroke, or a traumatic brain injury perhaps after a car accident. The work requires a deep understanding of the parts of the brain and how they work together, as well as how injuries to those many parts affect a person’s body and thus his or her ability to function. My courses at Northeastern gave me the knowledge to do that.
For example, when I look at the scans of someone’s brain after a traumatic brain injury, I can see where there is a bleed. Knowing the function of that area tells me what tasks the person needs to work on and how to best proceed with the rehab process, whether it’s teaching the person how to walk again, roll around in bed, or move effectively in other settings. We might focus, for instance, on parts of the brain that haven’t been damaged and strengthen those components to enable recovery.
My first co-op, at Massachusetts General Hospital, prepared me for Spaulding. MGH is one of the top hospitals in the world—it opened doors for me. Both MGH and Spaulding strive for excellence. Northeastern is the same: The university is always pushing the boundaries of what the students can do and how we can do it better.
You’ve been involved in many volunteer activities, including adaptive rowing with the Head of the Charles Regatta and adaptive skiing with New England Disabled Sports. How has community service shaped your experience at Northeastern and your future goals?
Being able to volunteer is a great way to get hands-on experience early in your college career. In my first co-op I was a physical therapy aide at MGH working on an inpatient neurological floor, so I’d see people two days after a major stroke. At my second co-op, at Spaulding, I’d see people who had had a major stroke perhaps two months before they arrived. Volunteering at the sports organizations before my co-ops, I was able to see people two, three, four years after a stroke and how they had developed the ability to participate in the sport: to learn how to row again, to ski again.
That early insight, along with the co-op opportunities at Northeastern, enabled me to see the long journey to recovery. When working as a volunteer with rowers, for example, I know about the rehab they’ve gone through to get to that point. Conversely, if I’m working a hospital or a rehab like Spaulding, I know what they’re going to need to do. That perspective gives me an edge in helping my clients.
You have been a Resident Assistant on campus since 2013 and were selected to be part of the National Residence Hall Honorary, or NRHH, which recognizes exemplary student leaders living on campus. What led you to that role?
I loved my freshman year at Northeastern. I was in Stetson West and I had a great RA and had good relationships with the other RAs there. The type of work that RAs do is similar to my volunteer work: It’s putting on programs for the residents, it’s making the freshman experience a better one. My goal is to make Northeastern a community, a home —to answer questions, to help people find what they’re good at and to look to the future. I became an RA because I am dedicated to helping people—that’s also why I’m becoming a physical therapist.
Part of what NRHH does is run service events, including food drives, as well as recognition events, where we recognize someone who’s doing a really good job helping students. For example, I wrote a Recognition of the Month award recommendation for a police officer here, and she was selected as a campus winner. We held a breakfast to tell her “Thanks for taking your job to the next level.”
What is one of your fondest memories of the past five years?
I’ve had so many good ones. As an RA we host a lot of events and I’ve done some really fun ones with freshmen and other RAs. One of them was a program called Connect the Dots. It’s a way for freshman residents to get to know one another while eating Dippin’ Dots ice cream, which is delicious. We put statements on a big posterboard—blanket statements that are somewhat controversial, for example, “If you work hard enough you can succeed.” The residents answer those questions but instead of answering them for themselves they answer them the way they think their family, friends, educational institution, and the media would answer the question. The game reveals not just what your perspective is but who and what influences you.