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Kolo-Johnson returns to birth country East Timor for study abroad

ISSUED: 16 February 2018
MEDIA CONTACT: Valerie Owens

SHEPHERDSTOWN, WV — For most students, studying abroad gives them the opportunity to experience a completely different country and culture. But for Bernadeta Kolo-Johnson, an accounting major from Morgantown, spending a semester last fall in East Timor allowed her to become more acquainted with the country where she was born.

From early September through December 2017, Kolo-Johnson studied the national language of East Timor at the Dili Institute of Technology in the country’s capital, Dili.

While this was her first time in Dili, Kolo-Johnson lived in the Asian island nation located north of Australia until she was 10, first with her birth family in a tiny village, then in an orphanage, before she was adopted and moved to Morgantown.

“I just remember being really excited because as a young child in East Timor I never really accepted the life that was given to me,” Kolo-Johnson said. “It’s unusual to know that at age 10, but I just never really thought I was going to stay there. So being adopted was something I wanted to do.”

Kolo-Johnson had been back to East Timor seven times previously with her family to visit the village where she was born.

“It’s almost like I’m famous there, because where I’m from is a little enclave and then the village that I’m from is very small so everybody knows who I am,” she said.

Before moving to the orphanage, Kolo-Johnson was one of seven children living at home. She said there was a three-hour round-trip walk to school and she and her siblings worked on the family farm. After moving to the orphanage, she was required to do a few chores, but the rest of the day was for school and playing with her peers, which allowed her to focus more on her studies. Kolo-Johnson pointed out she went from being one of seven, to being one of 150 kids at the orphanage, to being an only child after moving to Morgantown.

Kolo-Johnson said spending a semester in East Timor made her feel lucky.

“I realize how much more I have,” she said. “Everyone I grew up with who are my age are all married with three-plus kids.”

The literacy rate in East Timor is not very high. According to 2016 UNESCO statistics, 67.52 percent of the adult population age 15 and above can read and write. Kolo-Johnson would like to share some of the luck she’s had from coming to the United States with children who remain in East Timor by working to make sure her orphanage is financially supported.

“If I can somehow help continue the orphanage I came from, that will give support to families and will give young people the opportunity to go to school,” she said.

Listen to the interview HERE.

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