“Knowledge is wealth that cannot be stolen.” Elders and immigrants, who were honed by Hawai‘iʻs historic labor struggles, have implored this adage to descendants in America to get an education “so you donʻt have to work hard like us,” while struggling to raise families with less than enough.
Heeding this wisdom, Operation Manong (OM) was one of the first University of Hawai‘i (UH) programs, co-founded by Amefil Agbayani, Melinda Tria-Kerkvliet and Sheila Forman in 1972, in order to address equal access to higher education and diversity issues as a matter of social justice for an influx of Filipino immigrant students in Hawai‘i public schools that were ill-prepared to serve them.
The persistence of this “Super Manang” trio and civil rights advocates helped pass humanitarian immigration policies and strengthen Title IX legislation to increase access to education, guard against gender discrimination, and provide funding for bilingual education with champions at the federal level like Congresswoman Patsy Matsu Takemoto Mink, and allies at the local level with then freshman Hawai‘i State House of Representatives Neil Abercrombie.
In 2000 OM was renamed Office of Multicultural Student Services (OMSS) to better reflect its broadened mission to reach underserved, underrepresented students, including Asians and Pacific Islanders, students who were first to go to college in their family, students who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and those who were low income. OMSS remains one of a dozen UH SEED (Student Equity, Excellence and Diversity) programs offered initially under the leadership of Doris Ching, and then Agbayani, who retired in December 2016. Christine Quemuel is the new SEED director.
Like pioneering sages peering into the future, the importance of higher education was not lost to elders and immigrant parents, who perhaps envisioned the writing on the wall of reports such as the 2015 Economics Policy Institute (EPI), a non-partisan think tank on how the economy impacts vulnerable communities. It not only revealed that new jobs and pay gains since the end of the 2009 Great Recession were clinched by college graduates, but that they also earned 56 percent higher income than high school graduates, who saw a 3 percent decline in wages overall.
Given this, the reality of our broken education system does not offer all students viable options, in addition to college, to explore and develop their talents into careers with living wages. Nonetheless, student support is important at every step of the way along critical pathways of education, which will determine a studentʻs readiness for civic engagement and the U.S. work force. To this end, OM/OMSS played an essential role to bridge educational opportunities to students, which included college prep enrichment programs for high schoolers, college recruitment, retention, community college transfer to UH Mānoa (UHM), and more. UH SEED also tracked graduation rates and numbers of students who completed advanced degrees in professions like medicine or law, in which Filipinos and other groups were least likely to be admitted. Funding for these programs came at the heavy lifting by Agbayani and community advocates who had the ear of Hawai‘iʻs Congressional delegation and state legislators.
In the ensuing 45 years, Filipinos emerged as the second largest ethnic group in Hawai‘i, where nearly one out of four people identified as Filipino or part-Filipino in the 2010 U.S. Census, and, after Native Hawaiians, Filipinos were the second biggest student body population enrolled in Hawai‘i Dept. of Education schools, (20.5 percent). While Filipinos still make up only 12.4 percent of Filipinos at UHM, this figure represents a fourfold increase compared to 1972, when Filipinos represented a mere three percent of UHM students. More efforts are needed to bridge the forboding gap of underrepresentation and underserved groups in higher education. These vulnerable, but valued, students are acknowledged as assets and are highly sought after. UH’s strategic plan includes ambitious diversity initiatives that are key to capacity building collaborations for innovations to uplift society from disparate burdens through research, education, advocacy, policy development, service and economic opportunities.
Given this, OMSS coordinator Adrianne Guerero said, “OM/OMSS 45th anniversary guests were organized into discussion groups, where stories were shared by an array of exceptional alumni and supporters, who overcame adversity in their pursuit of education and careers in Culture, History and Arts; Health and Social Welfare, Higher and Lower Education, and Politics.” Following are accounts of Guereroʻs current OMSS and SEED youth leaders.
Hawai‘i State Archivist Gina Vergara-Bautista touched a passionate cord with students, who learned there is not enough information about Filipinos in libraries and archives. “As a non-Filipino student mentor, I found it sad how the history of Filipinos is not well recorded. We should work together to preserve each otherʻs past.” stressed Danny Hong, a civil engineer major, whose family is from China and Vietnam.
Psychology major Alyssa Marie Lapitan, whose mother is from Parola, Ilokos Sur, remarked, “It’s amazing to see the accomplishments made in the area of art, considering the many obstacles there are for people of color. I learned that Philippine history is undervalued as evidenced by the fact that the experiences of our people have not been properly recorded. Despite the misconception that the arts are not seen as a valid career, it did not stop Wayland and Desiree Quintero from earning their doctorate degrees and pursuing their passion for art, music, dancing and acting.”
Likewise, masters in public health student Marichie Barbasa, whose family is from Lucbac, Quezon, was inspired by Vergara-Bautista and actress/film maker Maribel Apuya. “Manang Gina lit my passion to record my family history, so Filipinos will not be invisible in history. It was heartbreaking to hear Maribelʻs experiences with negative stereotypes and prejudice as an aspiring actress, especially the limited roles for Asian Americans, and lack of Asian representation in the arts. I can relate to the pressure that Asian families place upon their children to seek high paying jobs such as a nurse, engineer, teacher or doctor. Parents put a stigma on careers in the arts and steer us away. I also shared Maribelʻs outcry for the need to protect high school students who participate in the arts from bullying.”
Saipan-born Noemi Caacbay, whose family is from Pampanga, was motivated to complete her bachelorʻs degree in public health by the Health and Social Welfare panelists. Noemi looked up to May Rose Dela Cruz, who rose from humble beginnings as the first person in her family to attend college, and persevered to obtain a doctorate in public health to help save lives through research and education. Social workers Conchita Schlemmer and Dominic Inocelda inspired her with their rewarding careers in helping immigrant and refugee families thrive, despite Americaʻs broken immigration system. Pediatrician Ricardo Custodio and UH West O‘ahu professor reminded her to “Take every opportunity. It's never too late to learn something new.”
As a recent College of Education masters program graduate, Franalyn Galiza, whose family is from Bacarra, Ilokos Norte, considered herself lucky to participate in the Politics discussion group with savvy role models such as Agbayani, OM volunteer Robin Campaniano and former State Insurance Commissioner, and Jade Butay, SEED College of Opportunity participant and now Deputy Director of the State Dept. of Transportation. She heard a firsthand account about leadership development from former skate boarding undergrad and OMSS participant Joey Manahan, who is now a Honolulu City Council Member and Transportation Chair, and oversees the controversial Rail project. Franalyn was struck at how OM volunteer William Domingoʻs tough Kalihi childhood and guitar-playing church youth activities helped him to succeed in law school and rise to become an O‘ahu District Court Judge. She mused, “I feel fortunate to have volunteered with many of Manang Amyʻs political advocacy issues and civic engagement activities. I met a long line of OM students who went before me, and are now doing great things in the public and private sectors. I hope that I can forge my way in the work world and contribute to improving our community like them.”
Lhiberty Pagaduanʻs family is from Piniqui, Tarlac. She graduated with a bachelor degree in geology. Jason Higa was a highlight for her in the education discussion group, because “I now see the UH SEED and OM/OMSS pipeline of education opportunities for students. Some of Jason’s mentors were my mentors, too.” Pagaduan was surprised to meet Jasonʻs parents, Edna Parubrub and Brian Higa, who dated during their OM volunteer days as tutors for immigrant students and since married. Their son Jason received a doctorate degree in molecular biology, earned the Ellen M. Koenig Award in Medicine, and was selected as “Scholar of the Year” from among 12 of the top PhD students from each of the Professional Schools and Programs at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. He is an assistant professor and teaches physiology at UH John A. Burns School of Medicine.
Clem Bautista, OMSS director, recalled how many OM/OMSS alumni became teachers and principals. Some participated in the Future Teachers Workshop, which was a partnership between the State DOE Personnel Office and OM for high school students in the summer. OM emphasized the praxis of "Student-Centered Learning" at a time before it was fashionable. Other OM/OMSS students who became teachers tutored ESL (English as a Second Language) students. They focused on individual student needs and created a bridge for each student to learn in a new country. OM/OMSS also prepared undergraduates for teaching by giving them the opportunity to be a lead teacher in its summer enrichment programs.
Reflecting on the impact of OM/OMSS on education, Clem Bautista said, “I believe our students who became teachers developed a sense of empathy to view students as individuals who have different skills and optimally learn through different processes. It is a truism that policies, practices and perspectives that are good for minorities or underrepresented students are good for all students. These policies, practices and perspectives can and should be adopted for systems in general. This adoption is still a challenge. UH has been slowly changing in pockets but not overall as a system.”
In closing, Guerero remains undaunted in her continued recruitment and mentoring of OMSS student leaders. She looks for students who are early adapters that display potential and passion to see the world through the lens of pioneering immigrants and elders to continue along the path of civil rights to safeguard education opportunities for students in the next 45 years, for in todayʻs times, is this really true? “Awan kas iti sursuro a sanikua, ta dayta awan maka takaw kenka.” “Knowledge is wealth that cannot be stolen.”