The Filipino potential
I first set foot on the United States in August last year. I was lucky to get a scholarship to pursue a PhD degree here in Utah. The last 10 months of taking advanced courses in biochemistry and structural biology has taught me a lot about nature's many wonders. More important, however, is my realization that the Filipino student has the potential to excel if given the opportunity.
The day before I left the Philippines, I had a conversation with my Physical Chemistry professor, Erwin Enriquez. I asked him how the Filipino student fared in a graduate setting as compared with his American counterpart. He made a reassuring observation: The Filipino student excels in the graduate school classroom because of his innate ambition and perseverance. The American student is very independent, aggressive and creative, and the Filipino student needs to acquire these qualities in order to be competitive. He then mentioned an idea from Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" about how a certain individual's success depends greatly on his environment and the opportunities available to him. He told me that if I worked hard and prayed hard, I would do just as well in my graduate studies as he did in his class, in a setting where many of my hidden talents could be tapped and where opportunities are abundant.
I went home feeling better prepared and believing more in myself. I guess I had always known what he told me, but I needed someone to remind me of it. I packed my books, and the next day flew to Salt Lake City to face the most taxing courses I have taken in my academic life.
I once attended a seminar sponsored by a student organization in Ateneo de Manila University in which the speaker said that there are many opportunities out there for the Filipino student, but he needs to know where to look. The speaker related that some local scholarship funds remain unused because no one applies for them. International scholarships and assistantships are also available at many American universities for qualified Filipino students.
I am grateful that in the university my ambitious spirit was awakened by mentors and professors who "had been there" and who had the spirit of service to come back to the Philippines and show others "how to get there." From my class alone (Chemistry, batch 2002), at least four are enrolled in PhD programs in the United States. Dom, our class valedictorian, is doing proteomics research at Cornell University. Maybs is at the University at Buffalo doing organic synthesis. Denise is in a structural biology lab at the University of North Carolina. Some who had graduated ahead of us made it to other prestigious universities like Princeton, Georgetown and the University of California.
From all this, it is evident that knowledge of opportunities as well as caring mentors are necessary to bring out the potential of the Filipino student. I am truly blessed to have had access to both. I can never forget how Nina Rojas, my biochemistry teacher and undergraduate thesis mentor, inspired my decision to do medical research. It was in her class that I saw the beauty of science and the tremendous power of achievement I have if I burn the midnight oil, believe in myself and take advantage of opportunities.
Recently I finished my last course requirement for admission to the PhD track. The past nine months have been intellectually challenging and fulfilling for me. I have been taught here in Utah by scientists, many of whom are doing cutting-edge research with global impact. This summer I will be joining a laboratory to study the structure and function of an enzyme. I intend to apply myself to my studies so that I can get a postdoctoral fellowship at Duke University (I am a Blue Devil fan and Duke is my dream school) and delve into the intricacies of mechanism-based drug design. Then, with my newly acquired skills and expertise, I will go back to my beloved country and "pay it forward." I know I still have a long way to go, but the promise of success is reassuring.
I believe in the potential of the Filipino student. So many have already made it, and there are so many more in our universities who are qualified to go to graduate school in America. I hope that the professors in Philippine universities will not hesitate to build close mentoring relationships with their students. Sometimes, the need to preserve authority hinders them from becoming the mentors they should be. I believe that a teacher's genuine concern for a student is just as important as his or her expertise in a subject area. The professors who are most dear to me are those who knew me, who listened to what I had to say, and who did not care if they were not always right.
I also urge the Filipino college students to study hard and not to be discouraged by the lack (or abundance) of financial capability in working toward a degree. While the grade point average does not by itself define one's mental aptitude, it becomes important when one applies for a job or a graduate scholarship. Opportunities to better yourselves are abundant -- you only need to know where to look. And when you find them, grab them!
Finally, I pray for all of us, graduate students in America, that the Lord's graces be upon us as we work for our master's or Ph.D. degrees. We get out of our studies what we put into them, but we must also remember that the Grand Designer's hand has something -- in fact, a lot -- to do with whether our experimental designs work or not. And when we achieve our loftiest goals, I hope that we will find a way to repay the country that reared us.
Mark F. Mabanglo, 25, is in the Chemistry PhD program at the University of Utah. He hopes to publish an article in the journal Science, but his biggest dream is to become a professor.
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