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An American Dream—from the Heart of Manila

I first began thinking about studying abroad in my junior year of high school. In America, particularly. It felt like the safest option in terms of diversity and accessibility, and was entranced by the prestigious Ivy League dream (I knew about Harvard and Yale before most local universities, Western media influence and all).  One day, I brought it up to my mother and was pleasantly surprised with encouragement. If we can afford it, go for it.

In 2017, Town & Country Philippines released an article called “The Best and the Brightest: Brilliant Minds From the Class of 2017“. Questionable title, they’re definitely not “the best and brightest” but the point on their international education stands. The universities mentioned in the list are all selective–they’re not those kinds of schools that accept anyone that can pay the full fee and boost their international student count, a metric often used in top college rankings. If you do a quick Google search for a school, you see their acceptance rates–or you know, you know that Harvard is Harvard because it’s hard to get into. The thing about international admissions is that it’s even harder to get into than what is publicly listed. MIT’s 7.9% acceptance rate is actually somewhere like 3-4% for international students. It was an interesting article to see (even knowing some people there!) and of those I were familiar with, I knew it was well-deserved. It was inspiring to see students that shared interests and activities that I had who were able to get into incredible dream schools.

It became a mental note: I’d be on that list next year, my story listed somewhere.

After an insane application process that took hundreds of hours, emails scraped together for fee waivers, discovering my own self again and again, panic attacks and breakdowns and scraped bank statements and riveting moments of doubt and oh my god I really haven’t done enough to get anywhere what am I doing what am I doing I’m wasting my time, spending hours churning out everything I believe in and love into words, getting rejected, getting rejected again, oh wait an acceptance–oh god this school is incredible and I can’t imagine–I somehow made it into incredible schools. This fall, I’ll be heading to Yale.

This year’s article had a lot of familiar names. There aren’t much platforms that celebrate student achievements, and there aren’t much resources or stories about Filipinos from here who got to pursue education abroad; it’s a well-intentioned step.

This tweet gained a lot of attention after its posting. Bottom line: it’s true. Obviously, the life we live through revolves and is continuously impacted by privilege: the resources we have, our priorities, and at times–the entire course of the life we live is constrained and dictated by circumstances decided by birth. Speaking for myself, I’m going to be studying at a fucking Ivy. It’s the pinnacle of elitism. The network, the status boost, the instant nod and opportunities given just because of one line of my educational background. The opportunities offered to me because of my presence at this school are going to be unattainable by the vast majority of the world, and every single aspect that enabled me to know what an Ivy League school even is, apply, all the resources, credentials, stories, and all that I have are attributed to the financial and social status I was credited with by luck of draw when I was born. My ability to study, craze through the process and go through self-induced panic is all credited to the fact that I have 1.) the time to do so, 2.) the knowledge to do so, and 3.) the place in life to do so.

The only vindication that people should have ever taken from the list would be to acknowledge that privilege plays a heavy role in the extreme difficulty it takes to get to those kinds of schools in the first place, and to resolve to work towards a world where more kids could dare to even dream towards that place.

After seeing this tweet, I was invited by one of the writers of the article to be part of the Leaders of Tomorrow list. Sure, why not. I sent in the only decent-framed photo I had of myself and was an insert.

I’ve been bothered by the dialogue surrounding the tweet for a few days after seeing responses and conversations about it but couldn’t exactly put into words my frustration with it until now; enough to warrant a post about it. The frustration pervades through both sides.

Above all, this dream is not the extreme elite’s alone.

Let’s talk about the picturesque image of a student who gets to study abroad, or, what I thought at first: obviously smart enough to get by, has enough to pay the ludicrous ~70,000 dollar annual tuition, opportunities, network, media publicity, and curriculum vitae spoonfed by their parents. Pushed into activities good on paper initially, maybe. You know how they joke about the rich international student heading to morning class decked out in designer gear where their parents back home are oil tycoons or vapid politicians. Indebted to follow what might be their parent’s footsteps, knowing the process and setting sights for it since middle school.

College admissions for schools in the United States are a lot more holistic than local school applications. They consider everything from your financial status, your personal background and any extenuating circumstances, standardized testing, your performance in high school, involvement in school, competitions, extracurricular activities, volunteer work, geographic location, race, everything. In contrast, you take a test specifically designed by each university here (at least for the major ones), submit a transcript of your performance in high school, then everything gets determined by that: two numbers. Everyone on that same playing field, dictated by their intellectual capacity and how well their education institutions or review centers or private tutors had prepared them in the last decade.

The thing is, not everyone on the Town & Country article fits that elitist “pinnacle of success” vision. Writing off, in particular, the college admissions process in the United States as a dream for only the most elite minority of people is extremely misleading, especially to the audience of high schoolers who could have instead been inspired and see that it’s more than just a pipe dream. What people need to know is that the holistic admissions process that everyone on the list went through is a lot more accessible than the exclusively bourgeoisie tycoon-rhyming last name dream that it appears to be.

My entire college decision was based on which place would be the most affordable. Standardized testing fees and financial aid applications were scraped together using the money that would have been put into my high school tuition, off because I was on a full academic scholarship. I’m sure several people on the list–international school or not–and other unlisted Filipinos pursuing university abroad lived on that same factor, on application fee waivers to even get a shot alone. I didn’t get the chance to pour money out on Advanced Placement classes or get an International Baccalaureate diploma, or even know what in the world those things were until I was in the twelfth grade, and took that as an immediate sign that I had next to no chance, but still went for it anyway.

The holistic status of admissions weighs into everything. Why I actually want to pursue higher education 8,500 miles away from home, the opportunities I was given and the environment I was raised in (not a private international school, a school that had never sent anyone in all its years of operation to a place of its tier). I had the opportunity to explain my situation and apply to schools that gave need-based aid (basically: if you can get in, you can attend). On the alternative: the major universities in the local system do not offer any tangible weight or need for “diversity” in its class. It exclusively boils down to the quality of education you had, your adeptness with whatever niche topics they choose to include, the language you remain exceptionally fluent in, moreso how ridiculous the material and lack of transparency are on the tests. Quick but commonly agreed-upon judgement, but it’s essentially something that can be perfected with constant practice and knowledge of the material. Whereas, the process that I preferred leaves their standardized test (the ACT or the SAT) that is also heavily proven to be improved upon with practice and also has performance heavily correlated with household income  as but one portion of your admission. You could argue that the local university system is in heavier favor of those with well-off educational backgrounds, and those with more resources and opportunity, in terms of pure admission factors.

What actually enables someone to have the resources to perform well in school, be it GPA as an indicator for work ethic requiring a student to consistently submit and do well on homework–an impossibility for most–or standardized testing as a metric of innate intelligence or ability to repeatedly study for a test? Privilege is rooted towards that, which is why it shouldn’t exist as the lone metric, and is decidedly advantageous for students of different backgrounds and not just the homogenous legacy-line applicant that would be thought to be commonplace.

 

 

Picture equal playing fields on a numerical factor for college admissions abroad. Using GPA, the video illustrates how things would work out. Most notably, the student with the 2.8 GPA is unfairly favored by the system due to donating huge amounts of money to the school–but you see that with all the other factors into play, there’s a lot more weight on who you are, your story, and the diversity you offer to class. Admission officers moreover, are trained to understand and favor high achievers from more disadvantaged backgrounds, especially when admitting internationals for geographic diversity. In America, race plays a huge factor as standardized testing scores display favor towards more generally well-off races. In this case, the application process does not simply disregard the inequality. Instead, it offers a lower “threshold” of expectation for applicants of that certain race. This is one out of many examples of admission officers understanding the barred equalities rooted in privilege and try to alleviate it. Of course, the process is flawed and affirmative action is widely debated, but it’s safe to say that there are much stronger and significant attempts to balance the playing field.

It’s a system like this that enables students like me and from other high schools with the right amount of resources to have a chance to even apply given the interest, perseverance, and the right amount of funds to go through the initial process. Ultimately, it’s still a draw of luck: is the school, knowing our financial status and our need for financial aid, willing to accept us over another lower-achieving but richer international? It’s a gain of 280,000 dollars for them over four years in contrast to maybe 12,000. Are we the right person applying to the right school with the right interests with the right background with the right circumstances with the right mood of the admission officer glancing over us and all our numbers and hopes and dreams and agh maybe you’ll just be placed into another pile because they’re really not feeling a trumpet-playing biology major today… You get the picture. The opportunity however, remains there.

There are international applicants alongside me who faced countless waitlists and rejections because of the amount of money we can offer. There are international applicants alongside me with just a laptop, waivers, and endless desperation with internet soul-searching and external scholarships in tow still struggling to pay for the flight going there, but do it anyway in pursuit of a better education. There are international applicants alongside me that forgone eating and time spent with their family to work, earn money on the side, and focus solely on the application process. There are international applicants alongside me that tore apart their families and applied backhanded in desperation, and made it work. There are international applicants that hold stories that you can’t imagine,  There are international applicants that breezed through it with private tutors, essay coaches, opportunity coaches, parent networks and parties that landed them an easy spot.

It’s only through things like the holistic nature of the American application process that students like me could have tried despite not ticking all the marks of what a good applicant should be, or even personally meeting the bottom 25% of scores for what most of these schools had. It levels the playing field with students from 1,200,000 peso a year schools and disregards money (ability to attend) and numbers as the only indicators for acceptance, letting students from more unconventional backgrounds apply. I’ve had friends from underrepresented countries and really low-income backgrounds get full-rides, perhaps not to Ivy League schools but neither did they need perfect standardized tests and scores–simply because their story was worth believing in.

There are those stories too, of people who began from close to nothing or random no name schools and families that strived through the process: whether succeeding long enough academically to receive scholarships to private high schools that offered them more opportunities, or being a newsworthy riser that defied odds and made it to exclusive schools, then entering that elite. But: the potential lies to anyone with the right amount of resources at a barrier that isn’t really unprecedented to a still notable amount of Filipinos. We are a far cry from it being accessible to the vast majority of Filipinos, but to a good amount of high schoolers that would have otherwise never thought of the possibility, the opportunity is there.

It’s good to encourage people to pursue higher education abroad as well if they have the passion for it and believe it would ultimately be beneficial to the nationalism and acts they can do. It’s good to spread stories to the middle-class who hold a fair amount of resources and enough determination that this is more than just something for the extreme elite. The American system I and others on the list aimed for is more reliant on just the right amount of luck, personal conviction, and that threshold of ability to apply than it is pure cash, international schooling status, standardized testing prep, and IB diplomas. The dream I had, one that I thought was an impossibility, is a dream that many more deserve to share.

On invalidation (it’s not.)

From the very beginning, being able to consider studying abroad alone, getting affirmation from my mom, and having time and strength to pursue the process is a testament to privilege and the position I had in life that allowed me to get here.

There are students who don’t even get to attend class or receive any form of education. There are incredibly advanced students that have to drop out to work, or are displaced and lose the opportunity to learn. There are students with unrealized potential, far more capable and intelligent than I could ever be, betrayed by the society we live in and the inherent lack of justice and balance in life. (And god, do I hope to be part of lessening that one day.)

“There are” students is an understatement; the reality is that most Filipinos will never have the chance. I consider myself somewhat hardworking, and someone could do what I do and a thousand times more but still never be able to know what Yale is, and it’s a reality that I acknowledge while bearing incredible contempt for. The 12,000 dollars I quoted is considered low for internationals wanting to study abroad, but is an amount most families here would never even make in their lifetime.

The original tweet shouldn’t be seen as a direct attack, and it’d also be pretty funny for someone like me, who was elevated to this place by getting accepted into the school of my caliber, to be disdained at someone pointing out a very true barrier. Literally, the collective Ivy League meme group is called “Elitist Memes for Ivy League Teens”.
Words can’t express how grateful I am to have even been given a shot at getting rejection letters from schools, or to stumble out in confusion of taking my first American-sealed standardized test, or to convince my counselor (my school has a guidance counselor!) despite having to literally get on her computer and use it myself to explain the steps of a very foreign to both of us system. I cried every night (and randomly publicly loll) for nearly two months because of fear over the process and how I was wasting time and how I really wanted to eat more than one meal for two days because I felt like I was dying but I had to save and work on the things for my application and my parent’s money last year–and that’s something that very few people can cry about. Privilege existed when I even had the opportunity to gather funds for my application fees. Privilege existed when I even had the opportunity to collapse from exhaustion over anything school-related. Privilege existed with all the problems I had, be it the mental health issues that I went through, the stress over school, or anything.

It’s more of nitpicking on the irrational attacks, I guess. Aside from the tweets offhandedly telling everyone on the list to gouge their eyes out or the ones assuming that we’re all going to become investment bankers or actuarial scientists sending out LinkedIn requests all day that will abandon the country completely because studying abroad and the mere existence of the F-1 Visa is the greatest form of desertion, the criticism is more than fair.

We are incredibly privileged to different degrees, but all face realities that a huge portion of Filipinos will never have the chance to experience. Breaking the barrier, however, still remains a near-impossible occurrence, but there are internationals I know bearing that Visa and ticket out that deserve the applause. With that, it’s not completely just to equate the mere act of studying abroad as privilege in itself. It is privilege indeed because of the status, but beforehand, there are stories of people (that may not be as prominent as international school! tycoon!) that deserve the attribution of going against an incredible amount of obstacles. That exception, against all other students in the country, is miraculous, but it is present.

On invalidation, god, no. Getting into the school is validation in itself already from chance and being favored by whatever odds out there, especially as I was a student needing a near-full amount of financial aid–the same should be said of anyone else sharing a similar path.

Privilege is something that I can say explained everything that comprised me: my education, financial aid requirements, vocation, activities and interests, essays, dreams–but it’s not what all of those only are. To take it as an attack is selfishly defensive, especially as someone of that status. Privilege had everything to do with my ability to work hard, be smart, and pursue things that admissions officers ended up loving too, but it’s not all that I am and that’s the view that should be held. In the same sense, being of that capacity because of the privilege you have does not make someone that gets into those schools immediately. Perhaps most people may not understand the process, let alone the actual difficulty of it, but inherently the ability of only having surface-level issues such as this is privilege in itself and renders that worry as something that should be pretty… negligible in the grand scheme of things. Does it really matter now that we’re in the schools? It should challenge us to do better, to give back. To put pressure onto a system that shaped us that we have more capacity to change for the common man than what the common man holds.

Angles and celebration

I took the first Town & Country article as inspiring and pressuring at the same time. Overall, it was a pretty positive (yet quite strange and elitist) fuel for determination and work. I know no one who had ever gone to study abroad from the country, so the premise of a list oriented on that was new, exciting, and hope-inducing. At that time and until now, knowledge about international admissions is sorted in online cliques and circles, especially Filipino-centric ones. Firsthand advice is limited to knowing students from international schools, or knowing someone who knows someone; being someone from a pretty well-off private Catholic school in urban Metro Manila, odds aren’t great of this being accessible if even I and the people around me didn’t know it.

The annual article obviously continues to be a celebration and mother-bragging material for international students. It gets attention, and you can bet that they’ll continue doing it next year, moreso that more and more students are being exposed and learning about the possibility of studying abroad. It’s unfair to frame it and be disappointed at it in its entirety when it’s really something about… people headed internationally. That’s the point. It’s inherently constrained to those who managed to go abroad, and though it needs a lot more representation especially from students outside the NCR area, considering the privileged nature of having the educational and financial capacity to even attempt international education, the article stands as it is. Education and the barriers surrounding it, are another issue that can’t be blamed on an article framed for a very specific topic on a very random publication that isn’t even oriented for the mainstream.

As a change, it’s nice to see articles celebrating excellence and education (though in a very exclusive matter due to the nature of the piece) rather than listing off children of celebrities and musicians and actors that look good in their latest Instagram post that local publications are already drowning in. It could have existed in worse forms. Instead of framing disappointment at an article that wouldn’t actually do much than circle local Twitter, I’d love to see local publications filling in other markets playing copycat and finding students excelling in fields despite hardships and circumstances to spotlight. If the Town & Country article appealed to me, I can’t imagine how wholesome one that spoke of a story targeted towards the masses would be in inspiring other learners and students from all backgrounds to continue, strive, and share dreams.

We may not be able to expect the same publication launching more lists to cater to students, especially since it doesn’t fit their demographic. It’s also incredibly silly to expect it from them, or to think that a niche article on only students who study abroad is the sole dictator for success published by a luxury magazine. It’s more of an encouraging thing marketed to families with the capacity to raise children like that to be excellent like those who went for it in the contrary to all those who did not or wasted the potential they had with it.

It’s time to hope that the investment banking nightmare, post-graduation settlement in New York City and all doesn’t become a reality. Instead, hope that every student praised in these luxury lists soon come back to incite change with the added knowledge and formation from their time in some of the world’s best educational institutions.

The article celebrates a very small angle that I’m grateful to be part of and was lucky to have seen the year prior; though I know that what the list presents is a very poor indicator of true excellence in the perspective of the country at large. It’s a small step that needs a lot of work, but know that the true narrative for the hardworking, leader of tomorrow exists in places outside of this and may we be pursuant to creating those. Moreover, one day, a world where it wouldn’t be a place in just a luxury magazine or something “exclusive” for the majority of Filipino students going for international education dreams. For now, the series is nice to have as an inspiration, especially with more diversification and depth on the background each student had.

Sharing the American Dream

Getting into Yale was hard. I’ve made a bunch of whiny posts and unwanted rants to friends about it through the process. Yes, I went through a self-imposed, surface level personal hell with the work I had done, but never faced the objective, harsher reality that most people my age in this country face. Getting into Yale is even more hard–impossible–without the privilege and position I had in life, but most people don’t even know what Yale is. Getting into Yale isn’t impossible for people with the similar resources to me (near full-need international, got through with a ton of waivers, from a non-global foreign-confused school), and shouldn’t be thought of as such. As much as holistic admissions tries to level the playing field for the middle-class international student, there are countless students that still would never have the opportunity to even step out and try. Getting into Yale shouldn’t be possible solely for students on academic scholarships, or with all the extra hours to seek resources, but should be something that should one day, be an education that Filipinos should have the capacity to attain and know of.

As someone on the list and in the state I am in now, I sincerely hope we can create more dialogues that are inclusive of what most Filipinos face, especially to the masses that need it most. Getting into Yale in itself is a surreal, hazy dream that should stir me awake to combat the inequality in the world I come from, especially in a country rife of it with huge socioeconomic gaps. There’s no dismissal, there’s no attack, there is solely a waking reality that should be acknowledged by the presence of my name on the list, having benefited from an unjust system that I then should spend my advanced position towards dismantling. In the meantime, these steps and stories should be advanced and shared with everyone bearing capacity to work towards shifting a system that robs so many of the nation’s true leaders of tomorrow of these opportunities. The only pedestal I am placed on as a “leader” or “young achiever” is one that necessitates and obliges me to make change and time to give back after the gift of a higher education that most can only dream of.

Beyond that, I swear that with all that I was given in life, I’ll raise hell at college and make the most out of where I’m going, do some self-indulgent learning on the way, come and do more than just give back, and reinvent a world I swore to.* With what I was given in life, it’s what I’m meant to die trying to do.

 

 


 

To high school students interested in pursuing undergraduate studies in the United States or if you have any questions in general, please feel free to talk to me at chiamisola@gmail.com. I went to a high school that had no experience with international admissions, studied with pen-and-paper and online resources (sort of, didn’t have time to study but I have resources!) for standardized tests, got payment waivers for most things, and didn’t start writing anything til a month before the deadline. Basically, I didn’t know what I was doing. The process is convoluted and I’d love to clear it up and introduce you to resources/help if you need. If you are interested, don’t be discouraged.

*My answers on the article were cut, so I’d like to share what I actually said especially on the questions about what I’d like to do when I return + why I’d like to study computer science!

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