Tuesday, March 12, 2013

An International Education

Only recently I learned about the “Filipino Scholarship Program” at the International School Manila (formerly the American School).  Exceptionally gifted rising 8th grade kids who otherwise might not be able to afford the tuition can sit for an entrance exam and interview and earn up to a full ride, depending on their circumstances.  This is a huge honor for the kids who are admitted; ISM as an institution is held in great esteem among Filipinos.  I’m proud that I was able to attend ISM for high school, (thanks to my dad’s company) but, on the flip side, I am ashamed that I took my education so much for granted.  The International Baccalaureate program had just been launched when I was there; my last two years of high school were steeped in the IB traditions ("I got a 7!") I was able to place out of several freshman classes in college because of my IB education.  The full IB diploma track wasn’t in place yet, but the advantages were there.  I would venture to say that most of us TCKs who got an international education benefited in ways that we will never know.  Among my fellow alums are a pediatric AIDS researcher, diplomats, businessmen, engineers, physicians, teachers, professors and more.  I am humbled to share a background with people of such caliber. 

About a year ago, we ISM alumni learned of a 14-year-old Filipino boy named Romnick Blanco, the 7th of 9 children of a poor farmer.  Romnick was so dedicated to getting an education that he used to walk two hours across barely passable roads to get to his rural school.  Thanks to the efforts of The Green Earth Heritage Foundation, Romnick sat for the Filipino Scholarship examination and is now an 8th grader at ISM.  Talk about ambition and dedication.  

In my day, as it is today, it was an honor for the kids who were Scholars.  It brought great pride to their families.  We had a classmate who, it was rumored, was in danger of losing his scholarship due to slipping grades.  Sadly, he felt that his only recourse was to take his own life.  It was a tragic reminder of the value of an ISM education, a fact that escaped us at the time.  

This attitude towards education seems a universe away from that here in the U.S.  (Those of you with teenagers will nod your heads vigorously in agreement; it takes the Jaws of Life to get my kids out of bed for school every morning).  Can you imagine a typical American teenager walking more than ten yards to get to school?  One only has to look at where education falls in the political pecking order to see how far it has fallen in the hierarchy of our priorities.  Every time there is a new round of budget cuts, it always seems that educational programs are the first to go.  I’m not sure what it would take to change this.  I have recently been hired to work for a local school district as a substitute teacher.  Like an ant moving a mountain of sand, grain by grain, I dare to hope I can do a (very) small part in changing just one person’s feelings about the value of an education.  (I’m not jaded enough yet to have given up hope!)


My friend Chris Frondoso recently gave me a little insight into the experience of a Filipino attending ISM. I wondered to myself if the Filipino kids who went to ISM had a different perspective about our school, and if they came away with the same global perspective that seems to be our TCK birthright.

Chris Frondoso
"What is a Third culture kid (TCK)?  My understanding of the definition is that it is someone who grew up in a foreign country or countries and who has more in common with his or her peer group than with those who are from his own country.

"While I do not exactly fit in this definition, I am somehow out of place.

"I grew up in Metro Manila, Philippines, during the 70s and 80s. Those days were mostly under the strong-man rule of then President Marcos. There was a far reach of the government: import and foreign currency controls, travel restrictions for Filipinos, increased control over education and limits on freedom of the press.  That was the era of pre-globalization and Internet.

“'Why did you go to IS?' was the question my then professor asked in my first year of college.  I was surprised she had spotted me among all of her students at Ateneo de Manila.  She told me she could tell by the way I said “sentence”. My professor happened to be a TCK, in that her father worked as some kind of technical man monitoring geographical and environmental issues around Asia with an international organization.

"My answer was my mother wanted to send us to a good school that was non-religion affiliated. When I was growing up, the top local schools were run by the Catholic Church.  My mom, who attended some post-Bachelor’s degree schooling and training in America, appreciated the common medium of communication, which allowed her to cross borders.  She believed in having a good working knowledge of English. In the 1970s there was a trend to make local schools more Filipino, diminishing the role of English and experimenting with a new curriculum.

"My family’s background on a local standard was a little culturally mixed or cross-cultural. My father grew up in the then predominantly Tagalog Manila, while I remember his mother being very culturally Kapampangan. His father was or appeared Tagalog in his ways but the family name to my knowledge has origins in the southern Philippines. The Philippines is made up of various people, languages and geographical groups where differences are quite obvious in the local setting.

"My mother’s heritage was not your typical Filipino. She was a mix of Chinese, French and Spanish.  She grew up culturally as Chinese, as her forebears were from the Fukien region. Her family religion was also in the minority, they were Protestants in a predominantly Catholic country. I remember the church her family attended, which I attended until I was about 20 years old. The standard and official text they read from was the old English of the King James Bible.

"Looking back with all these differences I wonder why I didn’t develop a major identity crisis.

"IS Manila was generally a good experience for me.  There were times when I had problems with academics, which required me to put extra effort or get some tutoring.  There were also a few “bad guys” I had personal differences with.

"It taught me to be sensitive to other people’s beliefs and cultures, to be reasonable, to have critical thinking skills and to speak my mind.  Although in the Philippine these qualities are not always appreciated.  On the other hand, when I speak my mind it is quite toned according to western standards.

"During the days I was growing up and going to school, local schools were under strict government control, financial regulation and other local conditions that made IS then stand out. We had up-to-date materials for class and other school activities. I remember telling people about the audio-visual materials such as filmstrips and the computer lab and they were in awe. (Just a reminder these were the days that preceded the Internet and widespread use of the computer).

"Outside of ISM there were people who viewed and even treated me as a foreigner, as the Philippine situation was more closed then. There were a few, even when I was an adult, who were interested to learn about my days and experiences at IS because they thought of it as fascinating.  With my mom’s extended family some were trying to be more Filipino, while some were trying to maintain their Chinese cultural identity.  It was hard to relate to them with the exception of a few of my relatives who had also attended ISM.  I had three cousins who attended the rival school Faith Academy (at the time an American missionary dependents’ school).  I saw one of these guys a few years back, and while we have different lives, he seems to share common ground with me in the uncommon times we underwent.

After ISM it has been an ongoing journey for me to keep adapting to situations and dealing with people. Over the past 20 years the rise of the Internet and globalization has narrowed the gap between the IS kid and the local kid.  Local schools have had government controls minimized if not totally removed, thereby allowing them to raise fees to finance capital investment in the institutions. The Internet and computerization have allowed them to have up-to-date international material. Globalization and the Filipino diaspora have broadened outlooks but I still keep in mind that there is a unique local flavor. I notice that those a decade behind me have more of a worldview than those in my actual peer group.
The generation that came after mine grew up in the “free” or “democratic” society after the Marcos era. This is a group less restricted in their thought than those that grew up in the time of Martial Law.

"Once in a while I see some old ISM classmates.  Many have moved on and evolved. It’s ironic that I have seen Filipinos become very American and I have seen an American become so Filipino that I wouldn’t recognize him. Some have average lives in business and commerce, while others have gone on to great success.  The shy ones are now outgoing while some of the party people are busy raising families. The sad thing is that some are still stuck in a limbo, having never found or achieved what they wanted.

"If I may, I will end by saying that every day is a journey to dealing with what is thrown at me and ISM has helped me approach varying situations in my search for solutions."

You can read more about the ISM Filipino Scholarship program here.

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