When Ambassador Jose Cuisia arrived in Washington, he observed that most of the Filipino-American communities he encountered had a mature demographic. There was little participation from the youth in Philippine affairs.
His wife pointed out that the younger generation had different interests and that the ambassador should meet them separately.
“When I called on the younger people, I gave them something to think about: Why not exercise your right to vote? You have to participate in shaping society. Think of the country of our parents and your grandparents. They need help,” recalled Cuisia.
To promote the Philippines to the Fil-Am communities, Cuisia revived the annual Filipino-American Youth Leadership Program, a program that allows select Fil-Ams to revisit their homeland.
Some 360 applicants were evaluated on the basis of their awards, scholastic achievements and leadership in school or civic organizations.
“The essay questions asked: What are the challenges of President Noynoy Aquino and the Philippines? How would you assist if he asked you to help? What could you contribute? I wanted to know their thinking processes,” said Cuisia.
The group was narrowed to 10 young achievers. Angela Lagdameo, 33, graduated from the Kennedy School of Government in Harvard and works as a senior analyst at the office of Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. In Harvard, she is the first Asian-American female to become student body president. She was recently elected a delegate to the Democratic National Convention.
Likewise, Gregory Allan Cendaña, 26, is the first Asian-American since 2000 to be elected as delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He is the executive director of the Asian-Pacific American Labor Alliance, one of the most powerful unions in the US.
Melissa Apuya, 26, is the legislative aide of Sen. Leeland Yee in the California State Legislature, while Alexander de Ocampo, 32, is a senior program and project manager of Saban Family Foundation and Saban Capital Group Corporate Affairs. He’s the first Filipino-American president of the California College of Democrats and California Young Democrats, and has showed his talents in raising funds for civic work in the Philippines.
The ambassador’s program aims to get the younger generation more connected to the Philippines and more involved in their communities, said Cuisia.
“My message to them is that you’re very blessed with good education. Your families provided you the best. You should think of giving back to the homeland of your grandparents. You have Filipino blood. Get to know your roots.”
The Fil-Ams’ Philippine itinerary included a trip to Corregidor, visits to churches and Las Casas de Acuzar in Bataan, dining in Filipino restaurants, shopping in Metro Manila, and enjoying a local spa.
It also included a visit to Malacañang to meet the President. At the Coconut Palace, they also met Vice President Jejomar Binay and had a surprise visit from Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile.
The group also visited the Ayala Museum to learn about the Ayala Foundation’s development programs. Ayala Corp. president Fernando Zobel de Ayala spoke about the Ayala Group and how business can contribute to national development and leadership. Dean Antonio La Viña of the Ateneo School of Government, meanwhile, lectured on Filipino culture, then Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez hosted dinner for that day.
Next, Joey Concepcion, RFM president, shared his insights on entrepreneurship and the potential of small entrepreneurs to become superstars in their fields. He invited two entrepreneurs who shared their modest beginnings. Enrique Dee began with a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and now runs over a hundred food operations and small malls in the provinces. Injap Sia, who started Mang Inasal in Iloilo, expanded to 425 stores with 14,000 employees before eventually selling his business to Jollibee for P3 billion.
Ricky Carandang, head of the Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office, also had an exchange with the Fil-Am leaders on advocacy and good governance.
On a Sunday, the Fil-Ams went to the Gawad Kalinga farm in Bulacan where they met founder Antonio Meloto, who spoke about social entrepreneurship. He also shared his rags-to-riches story and why he left the business world to serve on a Christian mission—helping transform the lives of the poor by building homes and communities for them.
The Fil-Am group then had a tour of the farm, which produces ingredients for personal care products under the Human Nature brand. There were French interns who also shared their experience about living in the Philippines.
The group was also exposed to the Manila Water Project and how it developed a program to provide water to the poor at affordable rates, and set an example for other Ayala companies with its sustainability program.
On their last day in the country, the Fil-Am group met Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who talked about foreign policy. The group also had a chance to meet Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano and several other young solons over lunch with House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte.
The program ended with exposure to and networking with some NGOs, sharing of experiences and a farewell dinner with Ramon del Rosario, Education Secretary Armin Luistro and Secretary Jimenez.
“This wasn’t R&R for them. The trip was a life-changing experience for these Filipino-Americans as they got to know their roots,” said Cuisia.
Michael Aguinaldo, 32, a seventh grade teacher in New York who has won several awards in education, expressed his desire to teach in the Philippines. (He had modeled in a national ad campaign for Ralph Lauren’s Polo Jeans Co. and secured $10,000 for the “Teach America” program.)
Indeed, Cuisia’s ultimate hope is that Aguinaldo and others like him “will be more involved in their communities and do something for the Philippines.”