As a teenager, educator and change-maker Juniace (pronounced “ja-NYE-is”) Etienne moved from Haiti to Florida, working farm to farm picking tomatoes and bell peppers with her parents.
Unable to speak English but looking for a better life for their children, her parents sought the freedom and economic opportunity they dreamed of in America.
Etienne came to know the grueling life of the migrant farmworker. “When we moved to Florida, my family picked vegetables, and all five of us lived in one room,” she says. “When it was hot outside, it was hotter inside that room.”
As she worked alongside her family in the fields, she didn’t feel content. “This just didn’t feel like America,” she remembers.
Her mother, who could not read, kept strict watch on her and her siblings’ education in Haiti.
“Education was extremely important to her. In Haiti, even though you may not know how to read, you still can supervise your children’s education,” she says. “If you came home and you had a lot of red lines [on assignments], she knew we didn’t pass our classes!”
Her mother believed that her children were meant for great things. “She would always tell us, ‘You do not have to work on a farm. I do it, but you can do better.’”
Inspired by her mother’s words, 16-year-old Etienne set her sights on Naples, Florida, to pursue an American education. Haitian children often live with their parents until marriage, so Etienne was brave beyond her years. “It was very difficult for me to tell my parents that I was moving,” she says. “I don’t even remember how I registered myself for school. My senior year, I went to school during the day and then worked at a cafeteria-style restaurant across from the school.”
Intent on financial independence, she went to beauty school and then opened the first Black beauty school in Naples. Her fledgling business could not make ends meet, but the setback only motivated her: Etienne knew she wanted and needed to further her education.
She earned an undergraduate degree in special education and quickly became a high school French teacher in a Collier County, Florida, school. “I think not knowing English when I moved to America helped me to be a better teacher because I understand where my students are coming from when they don’t understand a new language,” she says.
With a hunger to do great things, she continued studying. “I went to France for a summer to take graduate-level classes in French and also did graduate-level classes at The University of New Orleans and Southern Oregon University.”
Etienne was effecting real change in her own life, and now she wanted to disrupt the status quo and make bold changes in the lives of her family, her students, and society. She saw opportunities for positive change and took them.
Today, she teaches every French class at Barron Collier High School, from French 1 through AP and dual-credit college courses.
“My goal is not to teach my kids only French. I teach them to be lifelong learners, something they can carry on and pass on to their children and children’s children,” she says.
“To a young person who wants to follow in my footsteps: Understand that greatness is inside of you no matter what. And then tenacity, tenacity.”
She earned her Doctor of Education (EdD) from Walden University in 2011 while teaching and raising a family. “Walden was the best choice for me,” she says. “It offered flexibility, and the faculty were there for me. In fact, I’m still in touch with my department chair. We communicate very often, almost like family members.”
The teenager from Haiti who started as a migrant farmworker is now a world change agent: Dr. Juniace Etienne. Her list of accomplishments is impressive, and she has changed the lives of thousands of people.
Etienne has fulfilled her parents’ dream to do better. And it is something she wants for her students as well.
“I believe in my students. I believe I can make them lifelong learners. Even my lessons—yes, I am teaching French, but I always think: What is the social change that my students can [be part of]? When they leave the room, what have they learned from it?”