The Road to College Education,
The Road to the Manoa Experience
By Aurelio Solver Agcaoili
All roads to college will lead to the University of Hawaii at Manoa on February 25.
The annual event is called the Manoa Experience.
Planned and hosted by the University of Hawaii at Manoa Office of Admissions, more college-bound and students in high school dreaming of gaining access to college will participate in the event.
Some of the roads that end up in Manoa are well traveled.
But some are definitely less traveled, depending on who is dreaming of a destination place.
And the destination place is college education.
For the immigrant communities, particularly the community representing the descendents of people of the Philippines in the State of Hawaii, many of these roads have yet to be trodden on.
For the Ilokano Americans—those descended from the ranks of the plantation workers who came to Hawaii to take active participation in the growth and development of the plantation economy of the state—the February event represents a sliver of hope.
It is a chance to dream again, to dream beyond the historic menial jobs that most Ilokano immigrants are subjected to as soon as they set foot in Hawaii.
It is a vicious circle, this story of Ilokanos becoming tied to work with their hands and never rising from this lot in life, except for a few who are able to get by and send their children to college, and thus able to give their children that one fat chance to change the arc of their story as working class people since 1906, the year the first fifteen plantation workers from the Ilocos set foot in the islands.
Access to higher education is the new gospel for every Ilokano immigrant in Hawaii.
It is the new gospel for every immigrant of Philippine descent as well.
The Center for Philippine Studies of the University of Hawaii estimates, from a census data, that Ilokanos represent 85% of the immigrant Philippine population of the state.
Estimates from the Philippine Consulate General corroborate this data, and even tells us of a continuing migration of Ilokanos at between 85 to 90% of the yearly total of about 4,000 to 5,000 of immigrants from the Philippines.
The urgency of sending Ilokano children to college is borne by these hard facts.
The Filipino American Education Institute speaks of students of Philippine descent in public schools as ‘the invisible majority.’
Students of Hawaiian descent, at 28% or about 49,000 remain the majority, but they are visible.
Students of Philippine descent stand at 21% or about 37,000, but they are unseen, unheard, and neither here nor there.
These students are second to Hawaiian students in terms of number; they are also second to bottom in state assessments in reading proficiency and math skills.
Numbers add up, but numbers are a stigma too, as is the case of the 85% comprising the Ilokano population of the state.
The practice of collapsing the term Filipino with all of the ethnic groups in the state has given rise to the urgency of seriously considering the problems of Filipinos and Filipino Americans in terms of their access to college education.
But to regard Filipino as an ‘ethnic’ cover term, and not minding the diversity of ethnic groups included in that term, has resulted in the disparity of approaches to addressing critical issues in public education, including the lumping of immigrants from the Philippines as Tagalog-speaking even if they are not.
There clearly are problems in access to college education, and a conscientious approach to how best to deal with these problems has been explored by a variety of programs including retention and promotion under the UH Office of Multicultural Student Services and the UH GEAR-Up, and the UH College Opportunity Program.
Challenge Grant is currently funding a program specifically geared towards giving students of color access to higher education and retaining them in college. The Student Equity Excellence and Diversity is running the program.
Jeffrey Acido, lecturer of the UH Ilokano Program, says that the issue of access to college is real one among communities with high Ilokano population.
Speaking from his experience as a graduate of Farrington High School in Kalihi, he says of the almost infectious thinking of Ilokano students that college education is not for them and that as soon as one gets out of high school, all one has to do is look for work and start contributing to the family income.
“With parents putting in so many hours for a double job at meager wages, and with no quality family life and interaction resulting from involuntary parental absence, we cannot expect much from Kalihi unless we break free from that kind of an almost collectivized thinking,” Acido says.
Asked of the need to insist on a more sensitive ethnic term in addressing issues of social importance, Acido says of the urgency of radicalizing our approach to addressing the issues of college access and to revisiting the issue of retention and promotion.
“I was once a public school student, and I know whereof I speak. It is not enough that we are called Filipinos. It is urgent that we also affirm our being Ilokanos so that our bigger social problems such as education would be properly addressed. There are definitely some problems that are unique to the Ilokano experience and one of them is the economic cost of sending our young people to college, what with our parents receiving meager wages,” Acido explains.
Julius Soria, a long-time advocate of the Ilokano language and culture, and himself an instructor of Ilokano in both high school and college, speaks of the stigma attached to being Ilokano.
“You claim that you are Ilokano, you are automatically bukbok, a weevil that destroys any of those wooden structures. The comparison is not apt, of course, as it is most derogatory and does not represent what the Ilokano is capable of,” he says.
Drawing from his doctoral research of five Ilokano students studying Ilokano at Farrington High School, Soria talks of the kind of defenses an Ilokano student resorts to when confronted of his being Ilokano.
Soria, drawing from his years of work as an Ilokano heritage instructor at Farrington, explains the urgency of advocating for heritage rights in public education, and using these rights to their languages and cultures as educational resources.
“I see it more as giving hope to students and empowering them that they are capable of going to college regardless of their background, FOB or not, with accent or no accent. The FOB thing, fresh off the boat, is an ugly term. Sometimes, there are stories—subtexts—that suggest to students that they are not ‘college material.’ Sometimes, they internalize this. We need to falsify these messages, negate them, and affirm our students by prodding them to make a choice to go to college. We need to dialogue with them about the importance of college and providing them access to get there. Involving their parents is one of the keys to do that. It is important that we provide them awareness to these activities, such as the Manoa Experience, so they can come up with an informed choice,” he says.
The defenses as varied, including the conscious hiding of the infamous Ilokano accent when a student talks; the hiding of his ethnic identity by not being forward with his being Ilokano, or Filipino for that matter; and the almost automatic claim that he is ‘local’ or ‘local born.’
These conscious acts are safety nets against the assault on what one cannot do, what one does not possess, and what one can never become.
“I went through the same rite myself,” Soria says. “It is some kind of a rite de passage that you cannot escape from if you were born in the Philippines, or if you come from an Ilokano household. You cannot afford to be caught with your r’s as heavily as the old Ilokanos do. You learn to fake your accent. You learn how to lose it. And the faster you do, the better for you.”
There is a long way to go before the Ilokano Americans can pursue the American Dream.
At best, the pursuit of the dream is still elusive.
But a number of programs have been put in place to help students of Ilokano descent transition to college, stay in college, and get their degree before getting out.
One of these programs is the UH Ilokano Program that has been in existence at the University of Hawaii since 1972 and is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
The program offers both a two-year language program in Ilokano and a four-year Bachelor of Arts program with concentration in Ilokano.
Aside from these programs, it also offers a minor in Ilokano and a variety of culture courses in Philippine diasporic literatures, Philippine critical discourses, Philippine popular culture, modern Philippine drama, modern Philippine film, and Philippine cultural mapping.
Another Ilokano program has been put in place in UH Maui College since the last two years.
In high school, a two-year Ilokano program as part of the world languages curriculum is now in place at Farrington High School and Waipahu High School.
Many of the students who will participate at the 2012 Manoa Experience will be coming from these programs and schools.
For all immigrants dreaming of going to college—of wanting to learn many of the avenues to going to college, stay there, and get a degree—join us at the Manoa Experience on February 25, at the McCarthy Hall of UH Manoa, from 9:00 AM-2:00 PM.