“The first step in making a difference in something that matters is to find out what that something is.”
Penn State senior, Brendan Bernicker, spends his free time volunteering at the public defender’s office in Center County, Pa., advocating for what he has found to be his passion — criminal justice. “It gets me really fired up; it makes me want to go out and do the work. I understand that other people are not going to feel this way about this issue, but I’d like to think that everyone feels that way about something.”
Bernicker’s advice to the Penn State community about how they can make their own impact is to find what it is that gets them excited, and then the rest will fall into place. Bernicker’s confidence and endearing personality, paired with his courage to be himself and preach his truth, is what makes him the epitome of the ideal advocate for criminal justice reform.
Completing his undergraduate degree in philosophy, and his graduate degree in political science in a four-year integrated undergraduate-graduate program, Bernicker has a lot on his plate — but he has it under control.
“The philosopher in me wants to go out and fix things. The political scientist in me might be able to do it,” says Bernicker. “In a bigger cosmic sense, I still don’t know exactly what I want to do, but for me, philosophy was a chance for me to think really critically and systematically about the kinds of things that make a life meaningful, and the kinds of ways that I can create value in a more important, ethical sense.”
A philosopher at heart, Bernicker has strategically decided to pair philosophy and political science as his point of focus as a student.
“To me, philosophy is like science. It’s an approach to understanding problems, and I’m naturally predisposed to that approach — of thinking critically and rigorously about my experiences and the experiences of other people when I have access to them. It’s an approach to understand the way the world is and why it’s that way. I think my criminal justice education will help me understand the problems that my philosophy degree has led me to believe matter.”
The things that matter for Bernicker are most often the cases he works with in the public defender’s office, representing people who cannot afford lawyers. He is an investigator who interviews witnesses, goes to crime scenes, collects evidence and helps attorneys prepare cases either to help them negotiate better plea deals, or to prepare cases for trial. Bernicker is still in touch with his clients who are both in and out of jail.
“I had a client who was charged with a pretty serious crime, but it was not for very serious conduct. The technical violation was much more severe than what he actually did. He was not going to be convicted. They did not have the evidence … It was nonviolent, he didn’t understand that he was doing anything illegal. He was arrested just before his junior year in high school, which means he did not finish junior year, and his trial was going to be at the end of the summer, meaning he was going to miss the opportunity to go to summer school. The prosecution did not care. It certainly felt like they knew they were not going to be able to punish him, so they kept him waiting as his so-called punishment. He was going to wait in jail and not be able to graduate.”
“We already tried to get him released and we were unsuccessful. But talking with his mom, she told me how he was finally getting his life back on track, and he really couldn’t afford this setback. She said it was going to change his life,” Bernicker says. “So, I went to the jail, I interviewed him, I put together talking points for the lawyer I worked for, and I laid out an argument we could use to get him out of jail. The next day the lawyer went, made the argument and we got him released. He graduated on-time in the spring.”
This is not the only life-changing case Bernicker has been highly involved with. Bernicker takes the cases that anger him because of their prejudice, and he channels his frustration into productive action.
“The system cannot depend on 20-year-olds willing to stay up into the early hours of the morning so that innocent kids don’t get kept from graduating high school. I’m happy that that worked for him … but I’m also angry that that’s the system we have. That the only reason he got to finish school was because I decided to spend my time off and get him out of jail. I’m mad that it had to be done,” says Bernicker.
Bernicker has a very serious, confident and articulate personality, but he also is a down-to-earth, sarcastic and authentic boy next door. He plays guitar, works in a recording studio and hangs with friends when he has the time. What makes him different, though, is in the way he shows up in the world for others, giving of himself in a selfless manner and with no restraint.
He is adamant about the fact that there’s so much more diversity among the Penn State culture than an outsider looking in might think, and that a majority of students here will tell you a more unique and interesting story than expected. He says, “I like to think that I have one of those stories, and that it shows that there is more than one story.”
Bernicker’s story showcases that he has found what matters to him, and in doing so, he is changing the world’s culture for the better.