Meet Harvard’s 1st Filipino teacher | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Meet Harvard’s 1st Filipino teacher
Lady Aileen Orsal makes history at Harvard.
Meet Harvard’s 1st Filipino teacher
Lady Aileen Orsal makes history at Harvard.

Orange leaves fall on the brick pathways as I walk around the hallowed grounds of the revered Harvard University. I see hundreds of students walk across the square, each with their own dreams, stories and hope for the future. In Harvard, anything is possible. And here I am, a 15-year-old sophomore student, about to spend a day at Harvard joining some of the college classes.

It is 8:30 a.m. and I am sitting in Harvard’s first Filipino language class, taught by its first Filipino preceptor, Lady Aileen Orsal.

At just 32 years old, Orsal is the first Filipino to teach at Harvard University. A former teacher at Cavite State University, she applied online and was hired.

Having moved from Cavite to Boston, Orsal was experiencing a whole new world. She was nervous but remained headstrong. After all, this is Harvard, considered the premiere among Ivy League schools.

“I was nervous but I was quite happy because I felt like this wasn’t just a job but an honor to teach our language and culture at Harvard,” she said in Filipino.

Orsal teaches two classes a day of 12-14 students—a basic and intermediate Filipino class. A class lasts for about an an hour and 20 minutes. She admits to feeling intimidated at first, as some of her students belonged to the wealthiest families in the Philippines.

“I was nervous, yes, but I was also happy and excited when I saw them. I got to know them—they’re very good students, very nice and motivated. Nakakahawa ‘yung kanilang passion para sa klase (Their passion to learn was infectious).”

Orsal may be young but she comes with a wealth of experience. Not only has she taught at the Cavite State University for 10 years, she was also a Fulbright scholar and became an assistant teacher at Northern Illinois University. She is finishing her master’s degree and travels back and forth to Illinois for her thesis.

“I think everybody dreams to be at Harvard. But it felt like such a dream that I never even dared of dreaming. It was so removed from what I thought I was capable of. I was just happy teaching back home, but I realized that, apparently, if you’re happy with what your doing, it’s possible to make your dreams come true,” she related in Filipino.


Meet Harvard’s 1st Filipino teacher
Before Harvard, Orsal spent 10 years teaching at Cavite State University.

Orsal grew up with her own share of hardships. Her father is a carpenter and her mother, a stay-at-home mom. She studied in the public school system, working her way up to De La Salle University. When she got the teaching position in Harvard, her parents were ecstatic, realizing that their daughter did what they thought was impossible.

“Siguro ‘yun ‘yung pinakamasarap sa pakiramdam. (I guess that’s the best feeling.) All the praises I’m grateful for, but I’m happiest knowing that my parents are proud of my achievement. They miss me, of course, but they’re proud of me.”

I, too, felt proud to be sitting in Orsal’s class. Being 15 years old among 18-year-olds, I first thought I would feel out of place. But the Filipino language and the familiar faces made me feel immediately at home.

Orsal teaches conversational Filipino. That day, she was using a healthy food eating guide translated by the students in Tagalog. She was teaching how to use basic verbs, nouns and adjectives, like kumain, magluto, inumin, mahusay, malusog, masama, patatas, baboy, karne, gulay, kanin and more.

“Dito sa America, ito ay foreign language, so meron tayong standard tulad ng mga tinuturo ng American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. What you saw in class, the approach was conversational, an introduction, so they learn how to converse in the language. After that, we teach grammar and vocabulary.”

The 14 students in class had one thing in common, a Filipino connection one way or the other, be it a parent, grandparent or relative.

“The Filipino community is a big influence here in the States and in other countries. Because of this, the students want to have that connection with their relatives in the Philippines,” Orsal noted in Filipino. “We have classes like this because of OFWs who have been quite helpful. Ako ay si Ate Lady para sa kanila … isinasabuhay ko ang kultura natin sa klase.”

Second family

Meet Harvard’s 1st Filipino teacher
Orsal teaches two Filipino classes a day at the Ivy League school.

In every class, the students partake in an interactive class. Orsal lets her students indulge in discussions, ask questions, and ensures a collective understanding, allowing them to create their own presentations and apply their learning in a collaborative manner.

With her cheerful demeanor, Orsal has become more than a teacher—the class is her second family. With this new family and setting, she is still adjusting to her new life in Boston. Having grown up in the province in the Philippines, Orsal admits she is still getting used to a lot of things—the cold weather, for one.

“Life in the Philippines is so different from life in the States. Pero sa palagay ko, yung puso, kahit saan mo siya dalhin lagi siyang nanduduon.”

She lives alone in Boston, which is a first for her, but strangely, she said she doesn’t feel alone.

“The Filipino community, wherever in world you might find yourself, napakalaking bagay para sa adjustment. I don’t feel alone because the Filipinos in Harvard, my students, have become family. Once someone asked if I had a winter jacket, what my shoe size was. Parang ang dami kong nanay, ang dami kong kapatid, napakabait nila! Laging may handaan (I feel like I have so many mothers and siblings, they’re all so nice. There’s always a get-together).”

Orsal knows the responsibility she carries being the first—the first Filipino teacher in Harvard, the first to hold the first Filipino language class. Her class has placed our language into the mainstream.

“What’s most important is being proud of who you are. And I think it’s not just about being Filipino, but the self-awareness, self-acceptance. Know who you are, your strengths and even your weaknesses, and use these as springboard to enhance yourself. Para sa akin napakahalaga nun at yung ipagmalaki natin yung pagiging Filipino natin. (For me that’s very important, and being proud of our Filipinoness).”

It was such an honor meeting and seeing Orsal in action, breaking barriers and marching forward with this new challenge. As I was walking out of the campus, I realized that now no place is too far. Nothing is unreachable for us Filipinos. Anything is a possibility, no matter your origin, place, or situation. Thanks to that—our story, our history, the Filipino have found their rightful place in the hallowed halls of Harvard. —CONTRIBUTED

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