Max, A Filipino who has lived in Spain for 15 years, was our server as we dined at a Barcelona restaurant last week. He had a very friendly manner about him, and put his customers at ease with the way he mixed light banter with the way he responded to their needs. He easily slipped from Tagalog to fluent French when an African couple came to occupy the next table, and to fluent Spanish with the locals and his colleagues. Clearly an asset to his employers, he was a busybody in going about his work. We learned that he had managed to get his family to join him, and his wife was just as gainfully employed in that bustling Spanish tourist city.
Good for him, we thought, as unlike many of his compatriots earning a living overseas, he did not have to sacrifice family life for the sake of keeping the family provided for. He is making a good living, and making his mark with his overseas employers and more, out of sheer hard work.
Others make it on their talent. Well-known compatriots like Lea Salonga, Monique Lhuillier, Kenneth Cobonpue, Lisa Macuja, Paeng Nepomuceno, and Manny Pacquiao lead hosts of other talented Filipinos who have made their mark well beyond our shores, in arts or in sports. Talent has indeed long been one of our major exports. The horror movie “Sigaw” directed by Yam Laranas was remade as “The Echo” in America. Our films attract a good following at Cannes, and a good number have already reaped top awards. Many Filipino performing artists have become international stars. And there are countless other Filipino artists not as prominent, but nonetheless earning similar admiration in hotels and clubs in various corners of the world.
And then there are those Filipinos who make it on their brains, including the likes of Dado Banatao and Loida Nicolas-Lewis, who have made their names in international technology and business. Dr. Reinabelle Reyes, an Ateneo graduate, made news a few years ago when the Princeton University team she led discovered the largest number of “supermassive” black holes in nearby galaxies. Filipino scientists at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, Laguna, have helped propel rice revolutions in other countries. Similarly, Filipino scientists led geothermal explorations in Chile and Peru. Whether through brawn, talent or brains, we have shown that as a people, we are far more than just cheap labor, and that the world is our domain.
Somewhere in the Philippine countryside, a girl named Ann graduated among the top 10 in her elementary school class. Her original plan after high school was simply to marry and have children. A private corporation funded her studies, and with guidance from her sponsors, her worldview and life plans began to change. She now dreams of becoming a teacher, and is determined to finish her studies before even considering to have a family. She is deciding whether she will take up an advanced degree or apply to work with her benefactor company. But she laughs off the thought of studying in the premier universities in Manila, which she sees as a remote prospect. Only one of her peers had made it into the University of the Philippines in Diliman, the first in their town to do so. She is proud of him but cannot see herself surpassing him. Her scholarship has broadened her horizons, but it’s still hard for her to dream big.
Ann’s story shows that outreach initiatives by private institutions can help broaden the horizons of young people living far from the city centers. Improving access to information, e.g., by making internet accessible to all, also helps. A Google search for scholarships and sponsorships for further study can be the first step down many different roads. To open more doors, teachers to the villages need to be equipped with tools and materials to guide children to career options they are not normally exposed to. The profound impact a teacher can make has been played out time and again. The experience of beneficiaries of the Kanlungan Pilipinas Movement (KPM) is illustrative. After being brought under the wing of visionary founder Herald “Kyut” Villarca, rugby boys from Tondo were reformed and became volunteer teachers under KPM. But this is the part of the challenge that could well be the easiest to address.
Ann says some of her friends were discouraged by their own parents from moving to the cities to study. To them, their simple life was enough as long as everyone was together. But when Ann’s father who did odd jobs on construction sites got sick, she realized the value of a stable job and uplifting the status of their lives. She may not dream of becoming an international expert, but she has chosen to step outside the confines of their small barangay. There was a mindset, almost a culture, that had to be broken in doing so.
It is not just about building capacity, but also building dreams.
We pride ourselves with a predominantly young population who face a world of opportunities. But they need to be given the option to dream bigger dreams, and the wherewithal to pursue them. There’s nothing wrong with and there is no shame in becoming a domestic helper or laborer if it is one’s choice. But if these are the only options a young person faces, then something needs to change.
Dr. Josette Biyo, a highly renowned scientist and educator who has a planet named after her, once said in an interview: “What helped me most as a person was that, despite being poor, we had strong self-esteem. My father taught us even as young children not to be afraid to express ourselves because we were all equal.”
Being world-class is not just for a select few. Indeed, Filipinos are world-class—we just need to convince everyone that we all can be.
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