I grew up walking the tightrope of the Philippine economy.
Uneven distribution of wealth is a long-running problem in my country. High-end commercial buildings flourish, while the homeless hunker down around them. Children from rich families receive quality educations, but those less fortunate are forced to attend schools that are under-budgeted and overpopulated. The current Philippine economy is a two-sided coin and I am one of the struggling youth balancing on the rim.
Being born to a middle-class family in Manila molded me into an ambitious, diligent student. My father was able to send me to a good private elementary school, despite the tuition fee severely outweighing his income. Throughout my primary education, I was surrounded by wealthy schoolmates who seemed to have everything I did not: shiny cars, new gadgets and cable television. It felt unfair that they could indulge in such luxuries, while my parents worked tirelessly just to pay for my education. This drove me to become an overachiever, hoping one day my success would allow me to also taste this privileged lifestyle.
Slowly, my hard work paid off. I earned a scholarship to the most prominent science high school in the country. The money we saved from this scholarship, combined with my father’s new, better-paying job, was enough to compensate for my previous tuition fees. My family led a much more comfortable life, once we got past the financial problems that surrounded us when I was younger. I was safe from the threat of falling onto the wrong side of economy — and I intended to keep it that way.
My perception of the merits of wealth eventually changed. It started with an epiphany upon observing the acres of shanties — rickety shelters built by informal settlers — right across from my high school. In sharp contrast, a block away is the third largest mall in the world, SM City North EDSA. This inequality would later inspire me to conduct thorough research as an industrial engineering major.
I learned that the poverty cycle is perpetuated by education inequality, and the only way to break free from social immobility is by bridging the gap between public and private schools. With these realizations, I started to look back at my life and see how fortunate I have been. Many of us born poor will die poor. Some are so used to hunger, they are almost numb to it. Others are so used to seeing the poor suffer, they are numb to it. Yet, somehow I managed to escape this two-way numbness.
However, despite this newfound knowledge and empathy, I felt powerless. The truth is, when you get a spot at the top university in a developing country, you feel obligated to hold onto that opportunity as though the entire world depends on it. A deep-rooted sense of nationalism is embedded in the students at premiere Philippine universities. However, after diplomas are handed out and caps are thrown in the air, a capitalist society still awaits us. In the end, this flawed system is more concerned with keeping the privileged away from poverty than solving it. This, combined with the academic pressure I had to endure for the past six years, exhausted me.
In 2014, I took the leap of faith that changed the course of my life; I was chosen as the Philippine Youth Ambassador of Goodwill, representing Manila in the forty-first Ship for Southeast Asian and Japanese Youth Program (SSEAYP). I took a 6-month leave from school to train and cruise with 329 youth from all ten ASEAN countries and Japan. I lived with foster families in Brunei, Cambodia, Myanmar, Indonesia, and Japan. I met prime ministers, presidents, and royalty, as well as participating in conferences that addressed an array of national issues. Drawing inspiration from my previous research, I advocated for high-quality, non-marginalized education.
The conferences and in-depth talks I had with my co-ambassadors empowered me to change my career path. At that point, I could no longer will myself to come back to the education I left behind in the Philippines. The world felt too big — and my life too small — to be held back in some lecture hall again. I wanted to become an instigator of sustainable change. I wanted to learn how our world works and what I can do to improve it. I wanted to get to the heart of reality.
My admission to Minerva was not only a turning point in my education, but also my family’s lives. Money weighs differently in different countries. One U.S. dollar can buy me a decent meal in Manila. In San Francisco, where everything is expensive, my Philippine Pesos are even less powerful. Coming from a third world country, I knew money would be the biggest obstacle to my enrollment at Minerva. At that point, it was my family against the U.S. dollar. Even though the tuition fees in Minerva are significantly lower than other American universities, to my family, it would still cost a fortune. I felt like I was back to where I started, when everything I wanted seemed unattainable.
Aside from the money, I was afraid of how overwhelming Minerva might be. I’ve done my fair share of traveling before and I knew exactly why I wanted to attend this school, but deep down, I was also worried that living in seven different cities would change me. I was anxious about reaching a point when I forgot what led me to the program in the first place. I was afraid of forgetting my roots and the reasons that brought me here.
Looking back, I can say that everything in my life led me here. Thanks to receiving financial aid at Minerva, I am no longer paralyzed by monetary concerns. Now, I wake up to the sound of the San Francisco cable cars, the thick fog seeping through the crack of my window. I walk up the hilly streets and do my journaling by a view of the Bay Bridge. But after my first five months in this program, I have also realized I’ve never felt more Filipino in my entire life.
During long walks, I still hear the roaring jeepneys and picture the vibrant, chaotic Manila streets. In the morning, I still hum my mother’s favorite Tagalog songs and crave my sister’s breakfast longganisa. As I let this innovative program shape my learning experience, I feel closer to the aspirations I have for my hometown. Living away from home has made me realize how much of my city I carry inside me. And, despite everything, I am not completely powerless against my country’s problems.
This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.