I’m pursuing a master’s degree in higher education leadership. This venture is the confluence of finding my passion for education outside of my workplace, seeking a career change, and — no lie — seeing a bunch of folks on my social media feed who work in students affairs, most of whom happened to be Filipino-American. I’m wrapping up my first year of grad school and I can’t shake the longing for representation in higher education. It’s funny how we can know such Truths deep down in our core, yet still be hesitant to own them as OUR truth. It’s like that part in Twilight where Edward confronts Bella and tells her to say “vampire” out loud. She knows he is a vampire, but she’s still afraid to say it, as if that somehow makes it real and irreversible when she voices into the world. [Yes, my internal monologue is really this dramatic. And tinged blue.]
This is how it has been for me and my graduate school experience. I’m constantly hyping up colleagues on my campus, as well as my friends navigating grad school at other institutions. I’m always telling them to speak on their experiences and find power in doing so. Even on Kubo, we’ve had an array of viewpoints about what life in academia is like, what it means to choose not to attend grad school, and so much in between. It is an honor to have a part in putting these stories into the world. But I still get nervous about sharing my own.
I’m not sure why it’s scary to write this down, as if I don’t want to admit that I need community to lean on directly. Or make it sound like the community I have at school right now is somehow insufficient. In retrospect, I’m taken aback by how much comfort I experienced being surrounded by people who look like me. I didn’t have to explain things to them from the beginning. In elementary school, there weren’t too many Filipino kids… and we didn’t yet understand what that meant in a predominantly white neighborhood. But throughout junior high and high school, when I was involved in marching band and drumline, there was a good percentage of us. And in college, I was active in different kinds of Filipino and Filipino-American spaces where I explored my identity alongside others and learned to navigate the world with this identity. After college, I found Lakas Mentorship Program and have given this organization my heart and soul ever since. This group is an amalgamation of post-graduate Fil/Fil-Am folks who were looking for community in Los Angeles and the Inland Empire, but didn’t necessarily have a pipeline after exiting the hustle and bustle of the collegiate sphere.
For some reason, I expected to find that specific community in graduate school because there are a ton of Filipinos in San Diego. But not at University of San Diego! I did get involved with A.S.I.A. (Asian Students In Alliance) and our shared experiences have been a great support for me. They helped me find a sense of belonging, but there is still something missing, something I’m longing for, something that made me feel whole throughout my other educational experiences. It wasn’t until that aspect was absent that I deeply recognized the impact of having that community in years past.
In an effort to compensate for the lack of Filipino-American representation in my immediate surroundings, I challenged myself to infuse my culture and identity into the graduate school experience.
Doing What I Can
A couple months ago, I viscerally felt the effects of not having any classmates in my cohort who are Filipino or Filipino-American. As a commuter student, I do my best to get involved on campus, going to events when I can despite working full-time and taking a full-time courseload. I also commute 45 miles one-way in rush hour traffic, but damn if I’m not going to make this private school tuition worth every penny. I signed up to participate in a cultural fashion show hosted by the International Student Organization on campus. I was surprised that there was no one representing the Philippines, even though we have a multitude of traditional attire. To my understanding there is an active undergraduate student organization on campus, but I’m not sure what gap in communication or relationships prevented Philippine representation at this event.
I know this fashion show may have been a one-off, contrived event, but I was happy to bring some of my culture into the picture. I also brought my Barong Tagalog game to Dubai when I was there for a school trip. Normalizing cultural attire outside of Filipino events is a small, but important, step for me.
The thought of making friends as an adult terrifies me. I have my core friends from high school and college, who I’ve spent years building friendships with — I don’t see or talk to them as much as I’d like. And then I had to make new friends in grad school? My cohort is only like 25 students! I seriously doubted that I would find even one friend who really gets me.
I have a good handful of work experience under my belt and have lived a certain life thus far, which makes it hard for me to relate to my colleagues who are only a couple of years removed from college. I thank the universe for giving me not one, but two, solid grad school homies who are my age and really vibe with me. They continue to show me what it means to be an ally, friend, and fellow learner. They are always willing to listen to me rationalize how I navigate the world as a Filipina-American woman. And they challenge me to become the best scholar and practitioner in a way that is unapologetic and honors who I am.
I recently sought feedback from a faculty member about how I could better engage in class. She told me I typically make valuable offerings in class discussions, but said I could do better joining with my peers. When I asked her to clarify what this meant, she said that I sound like a “know-it-all.” I started questioning how I present myself in class and how others perceive me, especially when very few (if any) people share my experience or culture. It took a long time for me to get to the point where I could contribute part of my story in the classroom. I have been conditioned to keep my head down, do my work, and get good grades. Sometimes when I do share, I still apologize for taking up space or I feel like I have to list out my credentials before making my point. I can certainly see that I need practice with my tone or “joining with others” in their sentiments. But how can I join with others when no one in the room identifies with my cultural values and norms? Am I not the one who “knows it all” about my own experience?
I shared this instance with my two friends, who validated my feelings and apprehensions. One of them shared, “I don’t think she gave you the answer you were looking for. What were you really asking?” I realized I was trying to figure out how to better grasp the theoretical material and think more critically about issues presented. And that some part of me couldn’t care less about how I’m perceived during discussions, especially when I’m trying to take ownership of my learning. And again, I thank the universe for giving me these fine folks who affirm me and help re-frame my perspective.
Research or Me-search?
I feel fortunate have space in my program to bring a piece of what pushed me to pursue grad school. I recently completed my research proposal and over the next year, I will be exploring Filipino-American leadership and mentorship for young adults. Integrating Lakas Mentorship into my education is beyond exciting. You better believe I showed up to the poster presentation looking Filipino AF. Assembling my proposal proved to be difficult, especially since there is such limited literature surrounding my topic and there are very few spaces similar to Lakas Mentorship. But that gives me all the more reason to do this work.
At the beginning of the year, I started looking into doctoral programs. This is scary for me to admit, especially because I swore to myself years ago that I would never go to graduate school. Speaking this idea into existence is frightening and almost foreboding, given the relatively small numbers of Filipino-Americans in academia. I sat down with my advisor a couple weeks ago to talk applications and schools. We came to a point where we started listing out schools simply because they had Asian-American faculty (not even Filipino-American faculty… because that is not too much of a thing yet in higher education programs). While this is not the ideal way to go about selecting schools, I’m glad that my advisor recognized how important this was for me.
My school recently held its first Asian Pacific Islander Graduation Celebration. I had the honor of introducing the keynote speaker, Dr. Grace Bagunu. She also happens to be the Assistant Dean in one of my workplaces. I was ecstatic to meet her during my campus visit last year, shortly after I had been admitted to the school. While I knew she would be graduating by the time I started the program, seeing her complete her PhD expanded my view about what was possible for me. I recently also met Dr. James Fabionar, a new faculty member who is sadly not in my department. [Don’t worry, he gave me a huge reading list to get my research right.] Next Winter, Dr. Fabionar will be taking a group of students to Manila for a course titled “Education in Post-Colonial Contexts.” I’m doing my damndest to get on that trip.
Living in My Truth
I currently hold two part-time assistantships so that I can 1) get relevant experience in different areas of student affairs and 2) pay the bills. Through some chance of fate, I have Filipina supervisors in both those roles. This is huge for me. Seeing these women absolutely killin’ the game in positions that I someday hope to hold really brightens my outlook and put me at ease a bit. They are possibility models of what lies ahead for me. And they are also living through the struggles that I feel like no one understands. I never imagined that being able to talk story in the workplace with someone who has been there could have meant so much to me.
I realize how blessed I am to live in an age where Filipino/Filipino-American scholars are coming up in a variety of fields. I hope to approach my scholarly endeavors with the same rigor, steadfastness, and critical thought. But the more I continue down this road, the more nervous I get about doing right by our community. The world of academia is overwhelming and intimidating. Sometimes I feel like I need to read ALL the foundational texts and learn every single piece of Fil-Am history before I can confidently speak on how to address issues affecting us. At times, I even feel othered by some in our community. But I stay grounded in this sentiment: I can’t know it all, but I can know all that is for me. At the end of the day, I simply want to find joy in my hard work and walk the path towards my life’s purpose. The lack of representation in my graduate school experience has certainly taken its toll on me. But it gives me more fuel for the fire as I work towards that master’s degree and beyond.