Stories From an Immersion Program

After helping raise more than $40,000 and packing 200 balikbayan boxes for the victims of Typhoon Yolanda, 17 University of San Francisco students registered for my summer environmental justice course, "Philippines Today," to take the meaning of community service and social action to the next level. We spent two weeks learning about environmental issues that affect the Philippines as well as assisting communities in their disaster prevention and rebuilding projects. Here are some of their accounts. Dr. Jay Gonzalez, Adjunct Professor, University of San Francisco

University of San Francisco students take a two week immersion program through the urban and rural communities in the Philippines to get a glimpse of life in extreme poverty. (Photo by Jordan Guingao)

University of San Francisco students take a two week immersion program through the urban and rural communities in the Philippines to get a glimpse of life in extreme poverty. (Photo by Jordan Guingao)

Jordan Guingao

I hadn’t been back to the Philippines since 2004. For 10 years I told myself that I would never go back no matter what. All I remember from a trip there was trying to constantly evade a host of flying insects, crying because of the humidity, humongous malls, eating flan for the first time and maybe contracting dengue fever. Growing up as a Filipino American in a San Francisco suburb where there were as many Filipino families as there were streets named “Martin Luther King Boulevard,” there was not a spark of interest in me to learn or even be curious about the Philippines or its culture. However, attending the University of San Francisco changed everything. Simply being around so many other Filipino American students--learning from Filipino professors, having an opportunity to discuss and joke about MY culture--was a breath of fresh air. When I was presented the opportunity to embark on a two-week immersion to the Philippines through USF, I signed up as soon as I could.

Professor Jay, made his pitch blunt.  He let us know that for two weeks we would be visiting urban communities in Metro Manila and rural communities in Culion, a municipality of Palawan. He let us know that we would be seeing extreme poverty, the likes of which we have never been exposed to before. Especially in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, not only were we going to see poverty, but also the devastation that can occur due to a natural disaster.

Sure enough, on our third day in Metro Manila we visited Lingap Pangkabataan, an NGO that focuses on advocacy for vulnerable children. We met some of its staff and looked at their facilities such as their mobile education van. We visited the two communities Lingap works directly with, Nawassa and 155. From Lingap, our group crisscrossed dusty streets packed with tricycles, jeepneys and vendors.

As we made our way I couldn’t help but take in the storm of stimuli from the environment. Rusted panels of sheet metal gave shade to men playing makeshift games of checkers and chess. Traversing the damp, steep stairs and narrow gangways seemed to have transported us into an alternate dimension. Curious heads turned and gazed upon our group as the narrow passageways forced our bodies to shift every which way. The smell of barbecue made my mouth water; the toxicity of the poisoned river stung my eyes. People were living in makeshift homes that were stacked on top of each other, smaller than most American garages. Dogs howled and cats meowed as the wet slapping of our shoes announced our arrival at a wake. The family gathered around a tiny area in front of the casket of their deceased loved one. I had never been in any place like this in my entire life. A wave of exhaustion crashed over me as I tried to understand what I was in the presence of. All I could think of was “People shouldn’t live like this.”

A dog greeting the students at a wake (Photo by Jordan Guingao)

A dog greeting the students at a wake (Photo by Jordan Guingao)

It was difficult for me to understand that acquiring material objects don’t necessarily lead to happiness. Growing up in the United States, we become consumers, equating satisfaction with an accumulation of various goods. Seeing people live in what I deemed was “absolute squalor” made me think that they were unhappy. But actually they were some of the happiest people I have ever met and talked to. Everyone we visited treated us like we were their family, and they went out of their way to show us friendliness and compassion. Little children would swarm our delegation, making us pick them up, swing them and play with them. The adults of the communities joked with us and told us their stories, and in turn we told them ours. In the many instances we interacted with the people of the Philippines, I felt time stop. In those moments nothing else mattered but the company I shared. I was no longer afraid of the poverty, the heat or anything else. I was just so happy and grateful to be with such delightful people. 

The poor of the Philippines are at a severe disadvantage, yes, in terms of making a living and accessing clean water. Yet they do not let those things define them. Instead they focus their time and attention on their families and their communities--whether it’s working grueling hours as a taho (tofu curd) vendor to provide for a granddaughter or choosing to live with family rather than the convenience of living closer to work. Meeting many strong, selfless people in the Philippines has made me incredibly proud to be a Filipino.

The night before flying back to San Francisco, my father took me out to an Outback Steakhouse in Makati. The steak I ordered cost about 20 U.S. dollars. Before digging in, a weird feeling came over me. It wasn’t guilt nor sadness, but a little voice in my head that said, “Is this really necessary?” Needless to say I ate the steak, but I didn’t have an answer to that voice then, and I don’t have one now.

Embarking on this journey has opened a hornet’s nest of questions in my mind--all questions I have no straightforward answer to. I’m not lying when I say this program changed my life; minus the cliche-ness of that statement, it really did. I’ve overcome so many obstacles and fears throughout the years, but nothing has changed me more profoundly than “Philippines Today.” While I was sitting in the Ninoy Aquino Airport waiting for my flight back to SFO, I felt deep down that I didn’t want to leave. We had met so many inspiring people in our short time that I wanted to stay and just live among them one more time. That time will come, as I have been inspired to take part in Casa Bayanihan, a four-month study abroad program in Metro Manila through USF that works with many of the NGOs we visited during our immersion.  

A USFtv video on this year's immersion program:


Jordan Guingao

Jordan Guingao

Jordan Guingao is a junior Media Studies student at The University of San Francisco, where he currently works as a soft news producer for USFtv. He also hopes to get started on a double minor in Film and Philippine Studies as soon as possible. To him, life is just a series of unexpected journeys.


Ty Bernardo

This year's group of USF students visited "Tahanang Walang Hagdanan" (meaning "House without Stairs" for people with disabilities). (Photo by Ty Bernardo)

This year's group of USF students visited "Tahanang Walang Hagdanan" (meaning "House without Stairs" for people with disabilities). (Photo by Ty Bernardo)

As a Filipino American, or balikbayan, as some would call me, I’ve been raised to think of the Philippines as a second home. However, whenever I visited I would feel like a tourist with no real connection to the community.  I had always wanted to learn more about my culture and know what it means to be truly Filipino.  So, when I learned about the Immersion Trip offered by the University of San Francisco I jumped at the opportunity. 

The trip was an amazing experience because I was thrown into the community of Filipinos. I was given the chance to see how much I really took things for granted back home in the States.  Every day I was challenged emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually.  As a result, I was forced to rethink my usual perspective on life and become more empathetic with the needs of others.  Arriving in Manila I thought I had an idea of what kind of work we would be doing for this course--visit some historical sites, clean up beaches and help build homes. But as time went on I realized what the real purpose of this trip was.  

Our first taste of being immersed in the Filipino culture was sitting through a series of lectures explaining the different aspects of the Philippines: history, business/economics, government/politics and the environment.  A very interesting coincidence was that all the professors kept mentioning the topic of family and how important it is to the Filipino lifestyle.  As a Filipino American I’m torn between two very different cultures.  The family-based lifestyle of Filipinos versus the self-sufficient nature of Americans.  Having been raised in American society, I’ve always felt the need to improve myself in pursuit of wealth, power and prestige.  I started questioning my life goals after seeing how happy many of the people are in the Philippines without all the amenities that I’ve been accustomed too. All I really want now is to be happy and provide an honest life for my family.  While on our trip we also visited different praxis sites around Manila to get a feel of the Filipino lifestyle.

The first praxis site was a community called Tahanang Walang Hagdanan, for people with disabilities, PWDs. It was so inspiring to see how none of them let their disabilities define them or discourage them from living their lives.  I was amazed at their strength and perseverance in the face of adversity, and will always remember the lessons I learned there.  Our next praxis site was an NGO called Lingap Pangkabataan that serves as an education center and safe haven for abused and homeless children.  Listening to Lingap’s mission statement about how they supply children with a proper education and protection from outside dangers was very uplifting. The amount of compassion those at Lingap showed towards their community is something I want to emulate at home.

The USF students with underprivileged Filipino children (Photo by Ty Bernardo)

The USF students with underprivileged Filipino children (Photo by Ty Bernardo)

Following our visit to Lingap, we were able to see the type of living conditions many people at Lot 155 were dealing with, and I couldn’t believe it.  We walked through swathes of makeshift homes that would never be seen in America. Seven to eight different families were crammed together in one small lot that should accommodate at most two families, in huts with low ceilings and no protection from flooding. I experienced culture shock for the first time, standing inside 155 and seeing the living conditions.  Despite all these issues, all the people in the area seemed to be content with everything they had.  How could people who seemed so unfortunate be so happy?  At that moment I was proud to call myself a Filipino because of the strength and fortitude each person displayed. 

For our fourth praxis site we went to Sitio Payong, an impoverished community located next to one of the wealthiest, Loyola Grand Villas. The main issue between the two communities was that in the past, a Sitio resident broke into an LGV home and, as a result, all of Sitio has been barricaded.  I can’t help but question the LGV community’s humanity. They treated Sitio residents like animals by locking them up in a cage. I do not understand why people look down on others strictly based on their incomes or living conditions.   

Our final praxis site was a Barangay called Payatas, a community situated next to an 80-foot tall mountain of trash.  I couldn’t believe how much trash had accumulated within a span of eight years.  When we first got to Payatas, we stopped at the Barangay’s office where we met with the staff in charge of rebuilding and creating a contingency plan in case of another natural disaster.  I was reassured that the people in Payatas would be protected in the future after seeing how passionate they were.

After a few days and a whole lot of reflection, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of our visit wasn’t to change anything but to change our perspectives on life. I have learned the importance of family, the meaning of true happiness and what it means to be humble.  Even though I am emotionally, physically and mentally drained from seeing the corruption in the Philippines I remain optimistic. Amid all the darkness, I witnessed a glimpse of light, and it arose from the Filipino people.  Never in my life have I been more proud to call myself a Filipino.  The resiliency, compassion and determination exuded by every one of my Pinoy brothers and sisters have inspired and encouraged me to spread their teachings. 


Ty Bernardo

Ty Bernardo

Ty Bernardo was born and raised in Daly City, California. He will be receiving his bachelor’s degree in Politics and Legal Studies at the University of San Francisco.