If you had only one word to describe your Fellowship experience, what would it be? And why?

Renee Anne G. Lladoc

Hannah Mendoza Tablan

Miguel Codiñera

Lauren Kiyo Parondo Higa

Phylizia Carrillo

Iris Dumaual

Julian De Ocampo

Anne Fard

Margaret Palaghicon Von Rotz

Gretchen Carvajal

Franz Jeremy Sandil

Raven Castro

Richiel Llares Sta. Maria

Alexandria Navarro Albers

Marianne Reyes

Tristan Jovani Magno Espinoza

Jeremiah Azurin

Michelle Gan

Angela Jia-Yin Yulo Ng

I asked this question to the 2017 Kaya Co. Fellows a month after our Fellowship ended. We had just spent 8 weeks in the Philippines (June 24 – August 18), and I wanted us to have the chance to share our stories because I knew they were special.

Click on our pictures above to read those stories. I trust that you will get as much out of them as I did! (Note: This page looks best on a desktop, so if you’re reading this on your mobile, you’ve been warned!)

Also be sure to read Rexy’s announcement, To Infinity and Beyond, to get in-the-know about what’s happening with Kaya Co. and with the next Fellowship.

I’d also like to take this moment to thank the people who put our Fellowship together. Thank you, Rexy, Daniel, Katrina, Kathleen, Claudette, Eric, Michelle, JD, Shyle, and Gene. I hope that reading this blog reminds you of the impact you made by being there with us and there for us this summer.

In community,
Angela Ng
2017 Kaya Co. Fellow


by Renee Anne G. Lladoc

For so long, I was ignorant about the culture and life within the Philippines. I believed that because my parents came from that country that it was enough for me to just say I was “Filipino” without truly living and experiencing what they went through or knowing what the Philippines was about. Growing up, the Philippines I knew was a place that my mom would call “poor, corrupted, and dangerous”. It was a place where my cousins and family members would only want to see me because we could buy them gifts or they would tell me that I was not slim enough to be considered beautiful. It was a place where I assumed that living there for a summer was going to be the worst mistake of my life, but I was wrong.

Going with Kaya Collaborative was a strong leap of faith for me. I honestly did not know what I was going to learn, who I was going to meet, and why it was so important for me to connect with the home of my family. I went anyway and left to Manila the first week of summer. The moment I met the rest of the cohort and we started our orientation process I knew I was doing something meaningful. I was able to learn a lot from the different workshops that I attended and the people who came to talk to us about growing the Philippines into flourishing country. Kaya Co. stood out to me from other leaderships and immersion programs because it challenged me to see beyond what I knew, yet helped me look within myself to see what I was missing. It allowed me to look through the Philippines with humility and an inner perspective versus my Americanized lens. My internship with The Spark Project was also amazing because I was able to work hands on with projects and understand the power of the Filipino entrepreneur. I understood the value of contributing back home and how those contributions aim to improve the lives of others.

The best part of the fellowship was the fellows themselves. All of the fellows in the program were so inspirational to me. Each of them had their own journey that they were taking, but we all understood that our migration stories interconnected in some small ways. We all pushed each other to open up and reach for new heights about our goals in life and how can we utilize our power to impact the people in the Philippines. Our memories together will always be something that I will hold dear.

Kaya Co. awakened me to the power that I held and the true beauty of the Filipino people and its lands. It allowed me to accept myself as a Filipino American. I was able to start embracing my familial roots. Currently, I am working on a senior thesis about social tourism in the Philippines and on building a nonprofit for mental health and suicide awareness for children in the Philippines and families in the U.S. I hope to continue this journey of self-discovery and study more about Filipino culture and life. I plan to go back again this summer hopefully finding new paths of opportunities for me to grow and learn.

Renee is a fourth year student at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City, New Jersey. She is studying International Business with a minor in Graphic Arts. She is originally from McAllen, Texas. During her time with Kaya Co. she interned with The Spark Project, a crowdfunding company that helps fund local Filipino entrepreneurs. If you would like to contact her, please email her at renee.lladoc@gmail.com.

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by Hannah Mendoza Tablan

When I arrived in Ninoy Aquino International Airport last July, I brought several versions of my answer to “Where are you from?” but had no questions about my cultural identity myself. I had always known that I was in some way, somehow, somewhat, nevertheless, Filipino.

The Fellowship challenged this comfortable existence. It probably started that humid night that twenty-six of us piled into a farmhouse room in Baguio City and shared our “migration stories”. At some point or other, almost everyone else described struggling with the Filipino part of their identity: any combination of misunderstanding it, hating it, rejecting it, learning about it, embracing it, loving it, not necessarily in that order. Lights flashed and alarm bells sounded in my mind. What was I supposed to say? What could I say? My experience had been nowhere near such a rollercoaster ride.

I spent the following days listening, learning, and understanding. Slowly, I found a voice of my own. I met numerous people, both on and through the Fellowship, with whom I had illuminating conversations. I breathed Barangay Pacifico air and EDSA smoke. I ate lutong bahay and Jollibee. I spoke in English, Filipino, and often in a precarious, accented medley of both. Brazen as it may be, I like to think that even for just a moment, I walked with and as one of the Filipino people.

Six weeks under the Philippine sun irrevocably sowed seeds in my head and in my heart. It reminded me that I have an incredible wealth of heritage to be proud of. It proved to me that Filipino-ness exists on a spectrum. It exposed me to live issues in identity politics, the ways in which they touch me, and their importance even if they don’t. It taught me to see, in areas dominated by first-world politics and ivory tower discourse, the distinct struggles of developing nations and their communities.

The seeds have since begun to sprout and, two months after the Fellowship’s end, I carry them with me around London. My hope is that I continue to nurture them by engaging meaningfully with Philippine issues, whether through academic groups, professional platforms or the local Filipino-British community. For all the good they have done and have the potential to do, they are as much for others as they are for me.

Hannah is a final year law student at King’s College London. She was born in the Philippines and grew up in several countries across the Southeast Asian region. As a Fellow, Hannah interned with Atty. Antonio La Viña, executive director of the Manila Observatory. They co-authored and published an article earlier this year on the state of climate justice following the G20 Hamburg Summit.

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by Miguel Codiñera

The Kaya Collaborative fellowship was a grounding experience for me, because it enabled me to take my previous understandings about the Philippines and either: a) dissolve them completely or b) tie them down with lived experience. Because I grew up in predominantly white American spaces, the Philippines used to be very much an imagined homeland for me. My thoughts about this country were previously constructed from a patchwork of history books, cultural performances, and stories from my parents. For me, the Philippines was either a postcard or a UNICEF poster.

The two months that I spent with Kaya Co. brought my previously idealized, dramatized picture of the Philippines down to the ground. The program rooted me in the mundane (e.g. weeding on a farm, spending hours in traffic) so that I could get a grasp of the daily joys and frustrations experienced by Filipinos from varying walks of life.

Why did our parents want to emigrate? I asked myself and other fellows this question often, and I came to learn that the Philippines is neither paradise nor complete devastation. Aspects of both can definitely be felt throughout the country, but the subtleties of everyday life ultimately dictate a person’s decision to leave or stay.

My biggest takeaways: Poverty is real, privilege is real, and history is both real and cyclical. Now that the fellowship is over, I’d like to improve my Tagalog, share my experiences with Fil-Ams interested in deepening their connection to the Philippines, and grow a garden in my apartment (shout-out to AGREA!).

Miguel is from Jacksonville, Florida and recently graduated from American University, where he studied International Relations and Public Health. This summer he interned with AGREA, a Philippine social enterprise working to empower rural communities and prove that farming can be “cool, smart, sexy, and humane.” You can read his reflection on rural development in Marinduque here.

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by Lauren Kiyo Parondo Higa

I’ve only ever known the Philippines through other people’s stories. This past summer, I finally got to see it with my own eyes.

I’m a third-generation Filipina-/Japanese-American and I’ve always felt disconnected from both cultures– I don’t call my grandmothers lola and obaa-chan, and I didn’t know how to use chopsticks nor a fork and spoon until I was well into my adolescent years. It was safe to say that I wasn’t conventionally Filipina or Japanese.

During my third year at UC Santa Barbara, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Japan for ten months. For the first time, I felt what being American meant after only knowing what being Asian meant; I felt the vulnerability of navigating a foreign place while trying not to expose myself as a foreigner; I felt myself yearning for answers about the place my family left to start a new life an ocean away.

Days after my graduation, I had the the opportunity to repeat all of this in the Philippines. It was the second phase of removing myself from the place I grew up to learn more about where my family comes from– to dig up my roots.

Now that the fellowship is over, I want to continue being active in communities of Asian Americans, Filipinxs, Nikkei, and hapas. I want the Filipino diaspora to be aware of the opportunities in the Philippines– that, while our families may have left, many others chose to stay. And there’s good reason for that.

Lauren, a third-generation Filipina-/Japanese-American, was born and raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles. She recently graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a double major in Asian American Studies and Psychology. She was one of the first Cebu-based Kaya Co fellows, interning with Cattski Espina of 22Tango Records. Since the end of the fellowship, she has been preparing to pursue a Master’s degree in Asian American Studies. Additionally, she’s working as the Executive Assistant to the Chairman at Amihan Global Strategies and the Co-Director of Mentees at Lakas Mentorship Program. To learn more about Lauren’s fellowship experience, email her at laurenkhiga@gmail.com.

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by Phylizia Carrillo

The first word that surfaced as I reflected on the fellowship was, for lack of better words, unknowing. Neither an entirely negative nor positive word, unknowing is to occur without warning, is oblivious, is innocent, is unfamiliar, is abrupt. Much of my experiences in and of the Philippines can be described in the same way. And so, the fellowship was as much about unknowing a watered-down, TFC-filtered, gossip-fueled version of my motherland as it was about knowing it at face value. This was, of course, a slow, tedious process — one that the fellowship helped facilitate and at times, expedite.

I packed ten years of unknowing into three months.

I found someone worth never unknowing in that time, too.

Unknowing is visceral, is intentional. The fellowship taught me to practice unknowing more often, to make room for that which sustains me, to create space for those who enrich me. And look, I’m still unknowing, unraveling, unwavering. Eduardo Galeano described Latin America as a “continent that appears on the map in the form of an ailing heart.” The Philippines appears on the map in the form of mine, beating simultaneously with the hearts of millions of kababayans abroad, away, and ailing, too.

Phylizia was born in the Philippines, formed in Los Angeles, and exists somewhere in between. She’s a recent graduate of Mount Saint Mary’s University, the only women’s university in Los Angeles, where she double majored in Political Science and Global Politics (and double minored in Philosophy and Film, Media, and Social Justice). She had the distinct opportunity to be a part of the 2017 Kaya Co(hort) as a Digital Bohol Fellow for Creative Capital Philippines.

Currently, she’s a World Economic Forum Global Shaper and the Director of Innovation for Amihan Global Strategies, where she is leading national blockchain initiatives and designing digital transformation projects throughout the Philippines. Speaking things into existence, she is also applying to MIT’s doctoral HASTS program and positioning herself for a life in public service and on the road.

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by Iris Dumaual

Looking back, I most easily remember the fellowship as a series of picture-perfect, cinematic moments: hearing the rush of a waterfall before taking the plunge off a cliff; looking out at the little lights of Manila traffic from an apartment balcony; watching the dawn’s pink sky withdraw through the back window of an early morning Uber. But I don’t want to make the mistake of romanticizing this summer, or remember only the moments that were bright and beautiful. This summer was hard. It demanded not only that I reflect more deeply on my identity and my relationship to the Philippines than ever before, but also that we share our reflections with one another. Over and over again, the fellowship demanded our openness and our vulnerability.

In theory, it shouldn’t have been so difficult – the cohort and core team were kind, understanding, loving. But it’s one thing to hear sayings like “Speak your mind” and “Say what you mean”; it’s another thing entirely to believe them or put them into action. This summer, I came closer to believing that “Vulnerability is strength.” The fellowship challenged me to take the risk of being vulnerable with others in the community, to share my fears, my emotions, and my questions. And there were a lot of questions. Interning for a documentary filmmaker, I wondered if someone such as myself – American born and raised, solely English-speaking, detached from Filipino culture – could have any place in telling the Philippines’ story. And as a community, we were constantly asking: What can we, as members of the Filipino diaspora, give back to the Philippines? Are we more capable of doing harm than good?

Admittedly, I left the Philippines with few definitive conclusions. The discussion around privilege, responsibility, and belonging has only expanded. Even so, seeing fellow members of the Filipino diaspora navigate their own journeys and relationships to the Philippines alongside my own was an affirming and vital experience. More valuable than anything else, Kaya gave me a community to turn to as the dialogue continues – and the strength to reach out for helping hands when necessary, no matter how tender we must make ourselves to ask.

Iris is a junior at St. John’s University majoring in English with a minor in Spanish. During the fellowship, she interned with human rights documentary filmmaker Ditsi Carolino.

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by Julian De Ocampo

Why, why, why, why, why am I still here? I’m asked this question almost every day, from friends, family, clients, investors, and everyone in between.

The question isn’t loaded with spite, but curiosity. People cock their heads to the side and seem puzzled, like how one would observe a stray cat that’s gotten itself stuck in a tree, or a lizard that’s accidentally ridden the elevator to the top story of a high-rise.

And that question, benign as it is, causes a few other thoughts to bounce around in my head.

The fellowship is over. Go home. Move on.

I’m supposed to be working at a Big Tech firm right now, working on top secret projects as an engineer and clocking out at 5 with a comfortable paycheck to go home and watch Netflix.

Instead I’m here in Mandaluyong listening to the cars honk down on EDSA, trying to squeeze in this blog post in between coding and managing spreadsheets of clients, coasting on a shoestring budget until I can turn revenue before the ramen and rent money runs out.

See, when I joined the Kaya fellowship, it was supposed to be a working vacation. A few months to travel around and explore my “roots” (whatever that meant) and dip my feet into working at a startup before I joined the working world for good.

It’s not easy to pinpoint the a-ha moment when the Philippines suddenly started looking like a viable option. It might’ve been somewhere between watching the stars on the beach in Casiguran, and staring into the adorably nervous eyes of a tarsier in Bohol. But I suspect it was more likely in between the between the laughter shared in Ubers stuck in EDSA traffic, and the heartfelt migration stories we as a fellowship class shared.

Either way, if Kaya was supposed to be a relaxing vacation where I could Eat, Pray, Love my way around the country before hopping a plane to the corporate world, it totally failed. I ended the fellowship with more questions than I ever had in my life, and stared up at the ceiling for weeks wondering where I would most belong.

You see, the one thing I noticed about the Philippines is that there’s a lot waiting. Waiting in traffic, waiting in lines at the Immigration Bureau, waiting for your bill at the restaurants. But, god, it was more than just that — people were waiting for change and progress and justice and growth.

But what surprised me the most was that there were so many people who were tired of waiting. They wanted answers to problems that generations of Filipinos had come to view as unsolvable, from unemployment to traffic and beyond, and there was no way in hell they were going to sit around and just wait for those answers to become manifest.

And so I stopped waiting, too. I stopped telling myself that I would plunge in and start a business in ten years, after a few high-profile roles and an MBA. I stopped telling myself that living abroad would be something I might be able to handle after I’ve been out of college for a while.

So I’m in Manila building Groundwork, a digital marketing startup that lets Filipinos earn money for themselves and high-impact charities by providing data for local businesses to make better business decisions.

Kaya Co was about converting the latent energy of Filipino-Americans into a dynamic kinetic force. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential energy of Filipinos worldwide, so I’m just doing my small part in adding to the powder keg of creative energy we’re going to see explode out of the Philippines over the next few years.

No more waiting. That’s why I’m still here.

Julian De Ocampo is the founder of Groundwork Technologies, which crowdsources insights from specific demographics across developing nations for market research and artificial intelligence training. He is a graduate in Computer Science at Arizona State University and has worked at USAA, Amazon, and Kalibrr, where he was a data scientist during the fellowship. He currently lives in Manila and works towards increasing Filipino income and representing diversity in artificial intelligence.

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by Anne Fard

We are powerful when we are united.

Witnessing firsthand the impact of bringing together the Filipino diaspora with the purpose of getting to know our country, our culture and our people is powerful.

We discovered more about our identity through our heritage, and this strengthened the foundation from which our passions were birthed.

We were enabled to grow these passions, uncover new ones, and begin to pursue them.

We had a glimpse of the rising local social enterprises that endeavours to make positive and lasting change in the Philippines, and we became more inspired and driven to work towards the same vision.

As we were given the opportunity to realise the power we have when we are united, we hope to one day empower others as well.

Anne is a student at the University of Toronto pursuing a Masters in Science with focus on epigenetic and nutrition research. During the fellowship, she interned with Kalsada Coffee, a Seattle-based coffee company that supports local Filipino farmers by improving their living conditions and promoting their coffee.

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by Margaret Palaghicon Von Rotz

I could give a million buzzwords or Kaya Co branding words to explain the fellowship, but I really struggled to find a word to best describe my experience! I went with paradigm-changing because it was the best way to describe the broadening of my worldview and the expanding of my perspective on the Philippines. I would’ve gone with enlightened, in that sense. I chose not to because enlightened just sounds like I’ve learned when really, I’ve not only learned, but my entire mindset around the Philippines and its diaspora has exponentially grown outward and inward.

Coming into the fellowship, I didn’t really expect to learn much. I had come the summer prior to do an archaeology program in the village my mom grew up in, and I learned so much about the Philippines, my culture, and myself that I thought I was done growing in this part of my life. But the fellowship and internship gave me so much:

  • A community of people to share this experience with, to talk about the diaspora with, to discuss what being a changemaker is and what our roles our in the global Filipino community.
  • An internship that opened my eyes to different sectors in the Philippines and the struggles that come with them, and helped me find the fields I’m most passionate about.
  • The idea that the diaspora has so much potential once we all finally recognize our migration stories are all interconnected and we have the ability to reverse that one day.
  • That the Philippines is not stuck in the past, but very much in the present and can surely be part of our futures.

Because of all these gifts Kaya Co has given me, I feel like I can really explore my options once I graduate this June! I’m very passionate about development, foreign policy, and international relations, and would love to do work that allows me to understand the impact of different global policies and practices on the world’s marginalized peoples. I want to pursue these fields in the hopes that I’ll find that ideal in-between career where I can be in the US and in the Philippines at any given point. In the meantime, thanks to the fellowship, I look forward to finishing out my last year of undergrad and hopefully take what I’ve learned and share it with my community.

Margaret is a senior at UCLA majoring in Political Science with a concentration in International Relations and a minor in Global Studies. Her indigenous Filipina and mixed Fil-Am identities pushed her to be a part of the Kaya Co fellowship. During the fellowship, she interned with IBON International, a non-profit think tank that investigates the human rights impact of global development policies on the Global South. For more of her reflections on the fellowship and previous cultural experiences, visit americanbugan.wordpress.com.

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by Gretchen Carvajal

If I had to describe my fellowship experience in one word, it would be Transcendent.

I almost didn’t make it to the Philippines. I was anxious and wasn’t sure if my anxiety would let me meet not only 20 folks in my fellowship, but my whole family and even more so, my diaspora. Through several existential crises and bouts of lying around trying to plot a good lie to get out of this Fellowship, I guilt tripped myself into going, because, sayang naman right?

My fellowship experience consisted of back and forth trips from my Family’s city in Santa Rosa, to the big city where I worked, Makati. In between work and family were several trips, where I got to experience the mountains of Ifugao and the plantations of Bacolod. I even got a tattoo in Kalinga from Apo Whang Od, an experience I told myself I had to do while I was in the Philippines.

As a poet, I thought I would come up with a poem every day being back home. I thought all of these memories would come back and flood my system, and would push me to write something that I had been wanting to write for a long time. But more often than not, I found myself lost in translation. I don’t know if it was the constant switch of Tagalog to English, or the temperature shifts from air con to humidity, but I was so overwhelmed. I hadn’t experienced this country for what it was since I immigrated to America in 2001. I was adulting for the first time and at the same time finding the answers to so many questions I had about myself, not in direct ways that are easy to unpack, but in nuance and feelings that were overwhelming and complicated. I still don’t think I’ve figured everything out. I still haven’t been able to write a poem of it all. I know there’s so much more ground to cover than what I saw in those three months, and so many stories I didn’t have the courage to uncover, but I find solace in knowing that I’ve began, and transcended into another level of my identity as a Filipina American.

Even though I couldn’t find all of the answers I was looking for, the three months of Kaya Co reassured me that my love for my people is immovable. I say my Kaya Co experience was Transcendent not only as a reflection of my own personal experience, but because I know that that is the only direction fit for my people. Even through tragedy, systematic oppression, and every possible struggle pinned against us, we rise. We transcend the borders of the world and inhabit every corner of it, serving to give back to our home. We transcend in mind and heart, thinking of future generations even before they arrive. Transcending is the Filipino’s inherent power, and seeing that unfold from Negros Occidental to the Mountains of Kalinga, is one of the proudest honors that I’ll cherish forever.

Gretchen Carvajal is a Filipina immigrant by way of the Bay Area, CA. Born in Santa Rosa Laguna, she is an Artist with a focus in Printmaking and Neon who’s art is centered around the stories of her family and her people. She is a recent alum of The First Wave Hip-Hop Spoken Word Scholarship at UW Madison and continues to write, sing and perform spoken word poetry and music for audiences around the country. These days you can find her doing her eyebrows and procrastinating her entire life. You can also follow her on twitter @bellofromthebay to keep up with her shenanigans.

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by Franz Jeremy Sandil

Coming back to the Philippines, a place that I still call home, a place that was so familiar had become unfamiliar. The Philippines that I remembered was going to the palengke (local market) with my Lola, playing badminton outside with my brothers, and going to SM with my Tita’s. That is the Philippines that I remember, the remnants of my childhood with the vacations that my family occasionally take every 4-5 years. This summer, going home, I discovered another Philippines, a country rich in warmth and diversity, but also plagued with social inequality and rampant migration. During my 10-week Kaya Co. fellowship experience, I discovered different perspectives to look at my country. Different lenses to look at life back home. Different ways seeing, from the cityscape of Metro Manila, the simple yet proud nature of the province, to the Philippines as a whole as a balikbayan.

Looking at life as a Manileno

As close to as I could, I wanted to live the life of a “common” Filipino. During the summer I had the opportunity to do so by living in a condo at Quezon City and interning with the Kythe Foundation. By having a place to stay away from family gave me freedom, the freedom to explore and just embrace what life could be like. During my stay one by one, I took thing off my list such as riding the MRT/LRT, eating at local eateries, and using tagalog to connect, be present, and hear the stories of Filipinos. While 3 months cannot compare to actually living there and staying, it was enough to familiarize myself and observe Manila culture. In the news it was a place of endless traffic, crimes, and poverty ridden, but to my experience, it was a place of resilience. The issues are indeed present, but people live through it and make the best of the opportunity.


Sights and lives away from the city

Going back to the Philippines every 3-4 years, I thought I had a firm familiarity of Filipino culture. But by traveling to different parts of the country with people who I just met gave me the opportunity to freely wander, take risks, and be open-minded. During the fellowship, we travelled to three diverse places, Aurora, Baguio, and Bohol. In Aurora, we travelled by car and boat for a 3 day immersion and lived with the Dumagat people. In Baguio, we stayed at a farm and connected closer to nature and each other. And in Bohol, we saw the tourist industry and learned about Manila’s twin metropolis, Cebu. In each of these places, I spoke with the people and saw the culture within a culture. Philippine culture goes deeper with the one that I am familiar which entails different mannerism, speaking styles, and types of lives. The Philippines is not only Manila; there is so much more to discover and focus beyond the city.

Far from home

Throughout my whole journey, it was all a test of what it was like to be there, but what if I did actually decide to stay and go back home? Would there be opportunity in a country that my family fled from its lack? What inspired me and gave me a new outlook was hearing different balikbayans going back home and able to live flourishing and successful lives. Some started their own businesses, while others worked on social impact organizations in the country. While many Filipinos flee the country in search of opportunity, could this be the time they flee back? If so, what could this mean for the Philippines. I came in with questions, but more arose leaving. But what I did find was a stronger connection to my country, from past, present, and now in the future will I see it as home.

As a Filipino immigrant pursuing a bachelor’s in Health Care Management and Policy, Franz is a Junior at Georgetown University. His inspiration to be a part of Kaya Co. came from his need to connect back to his motherland and discovering what it means to be a part of the Filipino diaspora. Through the fellowship and his internship with the Kythe Foundation he was able to learn more about patient organizations, the Philippine healthcare system, and the meaning of social change. With his experience, he plans on steering Georgetown Club Filipino towards a more active engagement in culture and social issues as well as going home in the future to work on social impact initiatives that would make healthcare more effective and affordable.

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by Raven Castro

Kaya Co gave me a very special toolkit. It was empty at first, but slowly it began to fill itself more and more as I made my journey through the Philippines. Inside lay rich cultural encounters and even though I’ve been to the Philippines more times than I can count, these experiences were new tools, all with a unique function.

These include the adventures of living on a coffee farm for a couple days, exploring the Casiguran countryside on the back of an AFP military caravan, and pitching ideas to company founders whom I would read about in the back of an Angkas motorcycle. But it doesn’t end there.

Dig deeper down the layers of this toolkit and you’ll find the tools of professional repertoire – the framework of human centered design thinking, the network of creative Filipino leaders, and the exposure to working in a fast-moving and exciting startup in the Philippines.

Continue to rummage through this toolkit, and at the bottom of it all you’ll find the most important tool – the support system that went through this entire almost-dreamlike summer with you. This includes the life-lasting friendships made, the precious conversations, and the unconditional love that came with every hug when it was time to say goodbye.

This toolkit is like no other. It’s been two months since the fellowship, and I still continue to carry this toolkit wherever I go. Now that the fellowship is over, I’m working on picking up the projects I envisioned back in the Philippines. I still continue to learn and engage. I still continue to build.

Raven Castro is a junior at the University of Southern California pursuing his BS and Progressive MS in Industrial Engineering. As a fellow, he worked as a Process Improvement Intern for Kalibrr, a recruitment platform that connects local talent to emerging industries. You can usually find him wrestling on the mat, hiking the mountains, or eating ramen. Let’s talk! Ravencas@usc.edu.

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by Richiel Llares Sta. Maria

Kaya Co. is transformative. This fellowship having taken place in my motherland has challenged me in all different ways: emotionally, physically, professionally, personally and spiritually. Being faced with all of this brought me to my weakest point… and I will never regret it because the journey out of that state taught me how to process, accept and love on a deeper level. I definitely wouldn’t be able to reach my highest point directly from my lowest without being surrounded by my supportive core team, coworkers and 19 other fellows who shaped my outlook every single day.

Richiel interned in Pasay City with Food for Hungry Minds, a nonprofit school that provides free high quality education for low income families. Richiel will be graduating with an American Ethnic Studies degree from the University of Washington Bothell this Autumn 2017 with intentions to work in social justice and diversity coordinating. For more of her reflections and takeaways, visit rishellly.wordpress.com.

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by Alexandria Navarro Albers

The word love evokes a lot of different emotions for people. For some it is extreme joy and infatuation, for others it may be pain, anger, and loss, and for some it may be confusion and contradiction. It is amazing how one word can encompass so much, how one country can capture these feelings, and how one Fellowship can lead me to go through every possible emotion and land on one word to describe it all, love.

Kaya and the Philippines for me has been that instant love that I knew would make my heart ache once I left. It was fear and excitement of going someplace that I knew so much about, but at the same time nothing. It grew into the love of country, love of the people, and the love of my fellow global Kaya Filipinos that we can come together and unanimously decide that we want to help our country, our families, our Filipino people.

The one moment that embodies the word love during this fellowship, would be the last day in Bohol. Some of the fellows had already left back to the states, others were tied up with school and projects, and the rest were left in Bohol. On the last day, we all wanted to do different things: Hiking, sightseeing, or go to the beach. Everyone had wished we had more time to do everything, however we split up into different groups. One group went hiking to the beach caves, the others went sightseeing to the Chocolate hills, and saw tarsiers. I went sightseeing, with a slight fear of missing out, but each group had an amazing time. At the end of the day, we all met for dinner and a swim, shared photos of stories about what had happened that day and we messaged our missing fellows.

My point is that when I look around at the end of that day, I feel love. Love that even though global Filipinos are all over the world, we can hopefully all come together and achieve something bigger that inspires change. We can all go through the turmoil of emotions and broaden our lens, confront our misguided judgements, and learn from each other.

In looking back now I feel slightly melancholy of having to leave such an amazing space. I know we are all out in the world living the next best chapter of our lives after Kaya Co. But someday we will all come back together. Until then, this love and experience will motivate me to imagine greater than myself.

Alexandria values other people’s perspectives and learns best from other’s experiences, so feel free to reach out to her at alexandriaalbers@gmail.com and talk.  She is expected to graduate from the University of California of Santa Cruz with a degree in Legal Studies and a minor in Theater Arts, and hopes to incorporate the Philippine narrative in her work.  During the duration of the Kaya Co. Fellowship, she was a research intern for xchange.ph, which is a social impact investment company that works at the incubation phase of startup companies.  She looks forward to becoming more involved in the Filipino communities outside of her campus, once she graduates.

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by Marianne Reyes

yx^+ 6x + 5
y= – 2x – 7
Find the intersections.

What are intersections?

y1 and y2 seem so different; y1 is a parabolic equation while y2 is linear. How could they possibly intersect?

This is, in a way, how I saw a lot of the experiences we had during the fellowship.

Have I fully embraced this? Have I been appropriating what does not belong to me?

What can I take from this experience? Did I take more than I gave?

What can I bring to the Philippines? Does the Philippines need it or want it?

Does the Philippines need me? Would I make a more meaningful impact at home?

Can I define this place as home? What does that mean for the homes I have created elsewhere?

It’s hard to make responses to the first questions agree with responses to the second questions.

Before the fellowship, I had never heard the words “look for intersections” or “find the intersections” outside of a mathematical context. I have since learned that it is an effective way to find solutions for problems much larger than those in eighth-grade algebra. We found that it was especially important in Bohol: a place small enough that everyone knows each other but with difficulties cultivating flow of innovation among its different sectors.

And while there are clearly defined steps to solving for mathematical intersections, it was up to us to create a roadmap for the impact we wanted to have in the province. Thankfully, we had a lot of help from Kaya Collaborative, Creative Capital Philippines, and our new friends in Bohol. (Salamat kaayo!)

How do we activate the diaspora? We can all start by looking for intersections.

Marianne Clare Reyes is a Biomedical Engineering student at The University of Texas at Austin. She interned with Digital Bohol for Creative Capital Philippines, an organization which works with entrepreneurs and artisans to showcase Filipino culture through locally-made original creations. Digital Bohol fellows were focused on a cross-sector initiative to harness technology as a driver of entrepreneurship, employment, and sustainability in the province. Follow her on Twitter at @MarianneCReyes and on Instagram at @maan_marianne.

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by Tristan Jovani Magno Espinoza

i was asked to choose a word that might represent my experience this summer — something that would wrap up what i went through between jun 18th and aug 30th. it’s supposed to be a word that would describe what i felt when, after 15 hours, i was flying over the philippines, but the sun was already on the other side of the sky and i couldn’t see anything below except streetlights broken up by sporadic patches of darkness.

i imagine that this word would also describe what it was like, the following week, when i spent time with family i only knew through shy hello’s on skype calls with shitty quality. maybe it also speaks to the quiet moments in an impossibly small makati condo when the door would open and someone i never met would walk through and the space between us would be filled with handshakes, hugs, an exchange of names. if i’m lucky, it will explain the experience of packing into a van with half of the fellows — multiple times — and driving through hazy landscapes filled with the greenest greens and surprisingly warm waters; it will summarize the absurdly beautiful boat ride to and from casiguran, and the kids who could throw rocks into the ocean farther than i ever could. it might say something about who gladys is, but it doesn’t need to.

it would also show bits and pieces of baguio and kalinga, where i shared some of the most intimate and vulnerable moments a person could have. we fought back tears until we didn’t want to anymore; we gathered around a mambabatok and heard the same sounds that connected our ancestors. it seems appropriate, during those van rides, that we all rode through the darkness together, unable to make out what was ahead.

somehow, this word will help me negotiate what it was like to leave the familiarity of manila for cebu and be immersed in a community i never conceived being a part of; it has to fit every broken expectation and every new experience. i need the puso and lechon to be a part of this word; i need the habal habals and the jeepney drivers, the quiet tagalog and broken bisaya, the fierce rainstorms, the sweat and mosquito bites, bohol and mopeds, the 5 am sunrise following an all-nighter conversation. it all has to be there. finding a home in the philippines, that has to be a part of this word. likewise, so does returning to a home in san bernardino. leaving home in chicago, too, has to be covered here. at the very least, i hope that this word can express what it feels to unexpectedly find home in another person, and the way it feels to never want to un-know them.

but, i’m sure that this word articulates the experience of relating; of finding common ground with everybody i’ve met and understanding the ways we intersected years before we ever stumbled into each other’s lives. it’s a word that situates myself as part of a system; a system that connects me to other filipinos, to other people of color, and to the different forces that push and pull all of us together.


tristan jovani magno espinoza is a filipino-american digital artist and educator. He received a bachelor of fine arts at the school of the art institute of chicago (saic), where he studied in the art and technology studies department and learned how to program and 3d model + animate. as a kaya collaborative fellow, tristan was part of kaya co’s first cohort in cebu, interning simultaneously with crossroads and create cebu, two organizations that emphasize community and collaboration to facilitate a more distinct sense of cebuano culture. IG: @tristan.jovani

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by Jeremiah Azurin

My Kaya Co experience was a game, and we were the players. The country’s cultural norms, familiar language, and music I grew up with were all puzzles I thought I knew how to play with, but were far more complex and immediate to me as a Kaya Co Fellow living in the Philippines last summer. These pieces presented themselves in the form of problematic and systemic policies that underpinned some of the issues I cared most about as well as the voices, stories, and blessings I encountered every day.

I came in with the intention to “win,” or in other words, achieve all of my objectives. This included being a good intern, crowdfunding, learning a thing or two about my culture, meeting new people, and leaving with some concrete plans to tinker with back home in DC. I came in with loose goals and fortunately I won! I had an extremely rewarding time crowdfunding with the DC team and co-authoring a white paper with my colleagues at my internship with Amihan Global Strategies, and enjoyed my time living and experiencing Boholano culture, too. Now that I’m home, I’m excited to get involved internally by elevating and connecting alumni to post-graduate opportunities outside of Kaya Collaborative. So as memorable as my time in the Philippines was with my cohort, I’m itching for more. We are now a fifty-plus cadre of Kaya Co graduates with different personalities, aspirations, and experiences—and I intend to meet them all.

But in some ways I also lost this game. Puzzles proved too difficult and I floundered, cheated, and, at times, felt like quitting. My co-fellows were far more intelligent and I was not as well-versed in Filipino history or social issues as I thought. I inserted myself in spaces and conversations in which I did not belong, too. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t supportive; I’m lucky that my cohort was sensitive and nurturing in ways that helped us all cross the finishing line together.

So I describe my experience as a Kaya Co Fellow this year as a game. I strategized and played as best as I could with the lens I saw through every day. At the end, however, it wasn’t even about winning or losing, or checking boxes off on my to-do list. It wasn’t even (entirely) about the internship. Instead it was leaving the Philippines with new personal advocacies that convinced me to move far past our two-month fellowship and into a more active role in my own community, whether that’s at home or at Harvard. Salamat sa lahat and hope to return one day!

Jeremiah “Jeremy” Azurin worked on the Digital Province project as one of Kaya Co’s first Bohol-based fellows. His work centered around technology and design from a citizen-centric approach to Philippines’ tourism sector by helping create the first co-working space and fabrication lab on the island, resulting in co-authoring a white paper for Amihan Global Strategies. As a recent fellowship alumnus, Jeremy now hopes to continue activating the diaspora through the fellowship’s growing alumni base by connecting each other to wider communities outside of Kaya Co. Jeremy is a non-traditional, distance student and therefore studies remotely to continue traveling until he graduates with his Computer Science degree from Harvard University.

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by Michelle Gan

I can no longer count how many times this summer I uttered the phrase: “My heart is full.” How many times had I felt overwhelmed by the love and support of almost 30 new Kaya Co. friends, of teasing coworkers, and generous relatives?

For the first time in my life, the Philippines felt like a real home, a place where I could plant roots and grow, even for a short time. Before, the Philippines had existed as a distant and always temporary home—I told strangers I was going “back” even though it had never really been mine to leave. No matter how long a month or two could feel like, I never forgot that I was a visitor in my own home. All the streets blended together to sound vaguely familiar, but I never quite knew how to walk the 1.2 miles from my aunt’s house to visit my grandmother. Yet, as a Kaya Co. Fellow, I transformed into something more than a tourist. I traversed the city in MRT trains with passengers packed in like canned sardines, and colorful Jeepneys that looked like unicorns had vomited all over them. My tongue occasionally tripped and twisted over itself in restaurants and Ubers, but nevertheless, delivered the Tagalog sounds and syllables that for so long I had understood but rarely spoken. I talked to local fisherfolk, marched with youth activists, and wrote an article sharing the stories that they entrusted with us of how business development projects were pushing local city governments to displace fisherfolk from their homes.

I am grateful to the Navotas fisherfolk who opened up their homes to two strangers who looked Filipino but spoke in broken tongues. For telling me my eyes were as brown as any that of any Filipina they’d ever seen, and that I belonged in this country. I am grateful to my colleagues at IBON International who made it clear on my last day that I would always be welcome. For teaching me about Filipino grassroots organizing, as well as showing me the playful, teasing nature of the Tagalog language.

I am grateful to my roommates for making our apartment on Katipunan Avenue a place I always wanted to come home to at the end of the day. For frequenting cute cafés and plying me with cheese and crackers as I tried to make sense of what a future in the Philippines would look like for me who had not been born here, and whose Americanness colored her perceptions.

I am grateful to all the Kaya Co. Fellows for sharing so much of themselves in that little room in Benguet, and letting us mourn together the push and pull factors that create oceans between those we love and those we could have loved. For reminding me that everybody’s journey looks different, but not any less valid. I am grateful to the Kaya Co. leadership team for letting us curate our experiences, and pushing me to reflect and treasure the space we had together even when I didn’t think it was necessary.

Finally, I am grateful to my Philippines family—the aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents—for never letting me forget that they will always be a home for me, and that the Philippines will be my home as long as they are there.

I expected to spend this summer learning how to navigate the Philippines as my own person, separate from the family that compelled me to return summer after summer. I guess I had always assumed that meant being alone. I never imagined I would have found a different kind of family, that after eight weeks, home would span from Manila to California to Washington, D.C. I expected professional growth, and a continued passion for international development and inequality in developing countries. But the Kaya Co. Fellows are more than a professional network; they have bloomed into lifelong friendships among young diaspora Filipinos bound together by this complicated, almost inexplicable pull to the Philippines. Two months after the fellowship, life goes on, but the love keeps growing.

Michelle is a graduating senior at the University of Chicago studying Public Policy with a concentration in International Development and a minor in Statistics. During the fellowship, she worked with IBON International, a global advocacy organization that works with social movements and civil society to empower marginalized groups in the global south. To learn more about her real-time reflections on her summer in the Philippines and beyond, follow her on Instagram at @ganwiththewindd.

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by Angela Jia-Yin Yulo Ng

Stronger. I chose this word because that’s what the Fellowship made me.

I became stronger from being built up, from being affirmed, from being loved. I also became stronger from feeling lost, from feeling angry, from feeling alone.

I became stronger both ways, and that to me is pretty great.

Our Fellowship was beautiful in a lot of ways. Borrowing from Michelle’s phrase, my heart felt full many times.

At the same time, the Fellowship was also a time when I was challenged and pushed. Don’t get me wrong; I was happy to be challenged and pushed, but other times I was not. In that sense, aside from strength, I’d say I gained a lot of wisdom too. Wisdom to realize when something was valuable to me and when something was not; wisdom to speak up when I felt something wasn’t right; wisdom to take the unbeaten path and ask others to follow. Wisdom and self-belief.

The Fellowship was more than just an 8-week immersion in the Philippines. To me, it was definitely an experience in growing stronger, in believing in myself more and being unashamed and unapologetic about the things that I wanted to do.

At the end of the Fellowship, I remember writing to myself, “Do I have a right to be here?” And by “here”, I had meant the Philippines.

At the time, I had said, “I don’t know.”

Now, I say, “I will earn the right to be there.”

And that’s what I mean by growing stronger.

Angela is a Donor Organizing Fellow with Thousand Currents, and although she is currently based in Washington, D.C., she plans on returning to the Philippines in December and finding ways to use her privilege to support social change and social equity there. During the Kaya Co. Fellowship, she interned with xchange.ph. Connect with her at yng.angela@gmail.com and read more about her journey as a half-Filipina half-Singaporean here.

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