Please give a brief background on yourself and your career.
I’m Filipino-American and grew up primarily in the Philippines (with some time in Nigeria and Japan mixed in!). When I graduated from high school I moved to the US to attend Wellesley. At Wellesley I mostly took political science classes but ultimately majored in Japanese Studies. I spent my junior year abroad in Kyoto, Japan. Before returning for senior year, with support from the CWS internship fund, I spent two months interning with a Cambodian NGO focused on strengthening education systems in Phnom Penh. Having grown up in the Philippines, coupled with my positive international internship experience solidified my interest in pursuing a job that, while based in the US, would have an international focus.
I didn’t have a job when I graduated but within a few weeks had landed a job with Human Rights Watch in New York City. I worked in the Asia division as an Associate. It was the organization’s entry-level position and if you can believe it, only paid $26,000 a year, but it was an amazing experience and I loved my two years there. I met incredible people and learned so much about the human rights situations of countries across Asia and the world.
My time at HRW made me interested in pursuing health and human rights with relation to the HIV pandemic. I applied to graduate school and completed a double masters program at Columbia University with the School of International and Public Affairs and the Mailman School of Public Health. I focused on population and family health and continued to be interested in HIV. I graduated in December 2007, just in time for the 2008 recession. I struggled to find a job and was unemployed for 8 months. I finally took a job in a consulting firm geared towards strategic planning for nonprofits. While I appreciated the work the organization did, I hated my position. I had been hired with a promise of being a junior consultant but essentially was a secretary. I was frustrated and unhappy and knew something had to change.
Around this time my mother, who had spent her entire career teaching at universities in the Philippines, made a proposal. She was so tired of watching so many of her college students drop out of college due to unplanned pregnancies. No one in the Philippines gets sex ed in schools and sex is a taboo topic so families rarely discuss it. As a result the country’s teen pregnancy rate is the highest in south east Asia. Since my degree in population and family health covered sexual and reproductive health issues, she proposed that my husband and I move to the island of Palawan, where she and my dad had retired to, and start our own nonprofit focused on providing college students with sex ed. My husband and I loved the idea and within a year had moved to Palawan to start Roots of Health.
Now, nearly seven years later, we have grown our organization in ways that were unimaginable when we started. From three staff members teaching some college classes and working in one poor community, we now employ 20 staff members, reach over 16,000 young people in high schools and colleges with sex ed, work in 10 underserved communities and meet the contraceptive needs and provide healthy pregnancy programs to over 2,000 women and girls each year.
How has your career changed since you originally envisioned it at Wellesley? What other careers did you consider as a student?
I never could have imagined this public health career but am thrilled with how things have worked out.
When I was at Wellesley all I knew was that I wanted to work within the US but in a field that was international. As a student I was not interested in public health. It was only at Human Rights Watch that I became interested in that field. But being at HRW also created an interest in law school, and in fact I took the LSAT and thought I wanted to apply to law school before I decided that graduate school focused on public affairs and public health made more sense for me. I did also apply to schools of social work when I applied to graduate school and considered pursuing social work and public health together. However, I wasn’t accepted into Columbia’s school of social work but got into SIPA and the Mailman school so that decided my path for me.
How has Wellesley contributed to your career?
Wellesley has contributed enormously to my career, which is focused on empowering women with improved health and access to information and services. My feminism was solidified at Wellesley and guides me everyday in the work that I do.
What is a typical work day or work week like for you?
We work from Tuesdays to Saturdays because Saturdays are a great day for running programs within communities. On Tuesdays I have meetings with my Executive Team and with all Senior Staff. On the first Tuesday of every month we also have an all Staff Meeting. These are key for flagging upcoming deadlines, activities or events, and discussing any issues that have come up. When we first started the organization, I spent most of my time in the field, teaching the women and young people in schools. Now that we’re so much bigger and have more staff on our teams, I spend most of my time in the office generating grant applications, donor reports and planning our activities and programs with Senior Staff. I try to get to the field to visit our programs at least once every two weeks.
What piece of advice would you offer students looking to get into your area of interest and expertise?
I recommend trying to gain as much direct work experience as possible. It doesn’t matter so much initially if internship, volunteer or entry-level positions aren’t so substantive and are more admin related because being in the organization still allows you the opportunity to learn about the programs and work being carried out. Ask questions and ask for chances to help out in whatever areas are most interesting for you. And if you want to work in a specific field or region that uses a language other than English, make sure you master that language!
What do you wish you had known as a student?
I wish I had known not to put so much pressure on myself to land the perfect job or perfect opportunity. Everything we do helps us in one way or another. After having an awful job that I hated for a year, I realized it was an incredibly helpful opportunity for me because it showed me what I did not want to be doing. Even bad situations can have some useful purpose at some point.
If you could come back and take one class at Wellesley what would it be?
I’m not a science person but have had several recent Wellesley interns who were neuroscience majors and the things they studied and learned sound so fascinating. Given the chance I’d love to take an intro to neuroscience class.