When the Stars Really Shine

Alex Tan (center) with benefactors Dado and Maria Banatao (Photo courtesy of Alex Tan)

[Editor’s Note: This speech was delivered at the 20th anniversary gala of the Asian Pacific Fund, a San Francisco Bay Area-based foundation committed to strengthening the Asian and Pacific Islander communities in the Bay Area through philanthropy and grants that support organizations that provide services to the vulnerable members of the Asian American community. 

The gala honored Dado and Maria Banatao, whose Banatao Family Filipino American Educational Fund, has already enabled 63 Filipino American high school graduates to pursue degrees in science and technology in various U.S. universities. One of them is the author of this speech. The Banatao Family Filipino American Educational Fund is managed by the Asian Pacific Fund.]

There’s a saying that people told me in 2009 as I was looking for a job in the middle of the recession. They said it’s always darkest before the dawn. That’s not true. It’s actually darkest in the middle of the night. Still, we can appreciate the sentiment — when times are really tough is when we must hold on to the hope that we can pull through.

Times like when I was seven, and my family woke me up and yelled at me to run outside the house. I only had a T — shirt and my underwear on. When I got outside I turned around and saw our house on fire. There was a blackout and a neighbor left a candle unattended. That night my uncle took us in — no questions, no hesitation, no time limit. 

Times like when my father finally lost to cancer and my mom took us here, to America, to give us a better future — in a foreign land, with a new language, a different culture and no money. My aunt opened her home to us and let us stay with her.

I will never forget the shame and hopelessness of being poor. So when the Banataos asked me to mentor new scholars at their summer retreat I jumped at the opportunity.

Times like when I was accepted to Stanford only to realize weeks later that I couldn’t afford to go. Almost out of nowhere the Banatao family offered to help pay for some of the cost. I applied, of course — wrote the essay, went through the interview — but never really allowed myself to hope it would happen. In my family we help each other out. But a complete stranger – that’s too good to be true. 

There is a stress that comes with poverty, an anxiety, even shame. I didn’t go out with friends as often because I couldn’t pay, or I had to go to work because my paycheck — small as it was — helped put gas in the car or food on the table. Hope became a luxury that I was afraid to have. So hoping to get such a generous scholarship was out of the question. What I felt at that moment when I realized that this was happening is hard to put into words. It lifted a burden that had kept my head down for so long that I was afraid to look up, to hope for better things. It allowed me to breathe when I didn’t know I was holding my breath. Here was my ticket out of poverty.  

Alex at the Banatao Summer Retreat in 2007 (Photo courtesy of Alex Tan)

Years later, here I am. I’m an engineer in the semiconductor industry. I have a strong career, and the future looks bright. But it didn’t always. I will never forget the shame and hopelessness of being poor. So when the Banataos asked me to be a mentor at their summer retreat I jumped at the opportunity to help the new scholars. When my high school debate coach asks me to judge a tournament, I give them my weekend. And every month I give what I can to my extended family in the Philippines who are still struggling just as I did years ago. I give back because I would not be here today without the help of others. 

So many things could have turned out differently. I could have been homeless and uneducated. But because of people like Dado and Maria I am here, speaking to you, eating fancy food, no longer afraid to hope for a better future. 

It’s not actually darkest before the dawn. But it is in the darkest night, when the stars truly shine. Dado and Maria are brilliant examples of this. Let us all hope that one day, we may shine as they do. 

Alex Tan

Alex Tan

Alex Tan is a Program Graduate, Banatao Family Filipino American Education Fund and has a B.S. and M.S. in Materials Science & Engineering, Stanford University.