Everyone said I am an Asian Leader

“Zac, we, the Mathematics Department of the Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU), nominate you for an all-expense paid trip to Singapore.”

I bulged my eyes, swallowed my Adam’s apple, breathed a ton of oxygen, and yelled, “YEEHAW!”  Then came my galloping to every corner of CTC 306 and howling to the farthest moon of the universe, for I may be a scholar in Singapore.  In fact, becoming a student of the National University of Singapore (NUS) for one semester made me do the Gangnam Style like a fool in front of my statistics professor.  The news was beyond my comprehension that I even dashed to the covered courts and sweat rivers from my eyes.  However, before my drama, my professor stressed “nominate”.

This was because of other departments’ nominating their best 11 students for the same prize.  According to the orientation with the candidates, the Temasek Foundation Leadership Enrichment and Regional Networking (TF LEaRN) program grants three from twelve students an allowance of SGD 6 500 (est. PHP 213 000) to accommodate for all their expenses in Singapore.  Scholars will be given opportunities such as tours in Temasek-affiliated firms, retreats in military base camps, participation in nonprofit organizations, and strolls around Singapore.  Most importantly, the lucky ones will not pay even a cent of the NUS tuition fee.  The main requirements are evidences of three – academic excellence, service, and leadership, which total to a well-groomed Asian leader.  Unfortunately, the prerequisites enticed me to go back to my professor and say, “Pinaasa mo ako, sir.”

From the annals of Zachary Bisenio, academic excellence is a solid check.  I was able to grab medals and certificates in high school – essay writing, quiz bees, speech contests, dance performance, and first-honor maintenance.  However, the only service I did is my tutoring mathematics to about-to-say-goodbye-to-Ateneo college students in the university.  From my two years of tutoring, I counted an estimated 20 hours of writing on a piece of paper the equation of a line and the interpretation of a derivative.  In fact, a lion’s share of those hours came from three students, rampaging my cellphone and Facebook messenger with 10-20 questions from their textbooks and past exams.  This helping hand was rubbish as compared to the long-term, reaching-to-a-million-youths Gawad Kalinga efforts and catechists’ works of my competitors.  Fortunately, the leadership criterion was easily filled up – with a whole bunch of nothing.  Definitely, my slot in the top three was certain given the presidencies and office positions of the other candidates in n different organizations.

Nevertheless, along with my transcript of records and passport, I sent all of what I had to the International Relations Office of NUS because of the possibility of becoming a scholar.  Unfortunately, I knew that was a 0.0000…001% probability; hence, I questioned, “Are the results worth the wait?”

At the end of my second semester, NUS said “Yes”:

Fr: TF LEaRN Inbound <tfl.ib@nus.edu.sg>

May 5 at 6:05 PM

Dear Students,

After careful selection by the TF LEaRN Selection Committee, we are very pleased to share that you have been selected for the Temasek Foundation Leadership Enrichment and Regional Networking Programme @ NUS (TF LEaRN @ NUS) for AY 2016/2017 Semester 1 (Aug to Dec 2016). (Yahoo!)

I fell on my knees, with goosebumps all over my body, and gasped, “I am going to Singapore.”  I laid my forehead on the floor, with my eyes on top of my crossed arms, and panted, “I am a TF LEaRN scholar.”  I stood back up, glanced myself on the mirror, brought myself close enough for my nose to rest on the surface, and muttered, “I am an Asian leader?”

That could have been a scene from a melodramatic film, with the lyrical serenade of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston’s “When You Believe” as background music.

There can be miracles when you believe.

Certainly, I believe.  I believe I am the future leader of Asia.  Millions of students around the continent have beefed up their curriculum vitaes (CVs) and scavenged through their past documents to gather all the awards they could find.  Everyone has put their best foot forward–officers of n different organizations, delegates of international conferences, double majors with double minors, and beyond-the-heavens QPI holders–to be groomed in a society raised by the Lee Kwan Yew.  Nonetheless, even though my CV was close to thin air, I was chosen to be a recipient of the TF LEaRN scholarship.  After cutting my statistics class for the application process, going through two consecutive nights without any sweet dreams, and paying PHP 600.00 to print all relevant documents in more than 20 glossy papers, I did it.  That achievement is the proof in the pudding why I am the next in line as a leader of Asia.

However, those reactions were at the peak of my adrenaline levels.

Why me?

That was the question.  I was picked over a computer science colleague who has been a project head in different seminars in technology.  I was chosen over a fellow mathematician who was known as a Sudoku champion in the Philippines.  I was given the opportunity over a management student whose business outputs are always the crème of the crop in the JSEC Challenge every year.

These monologues were inside my head while I was sitting down on a sofa chair, drinking a cup of white hot chocolate, and munching on my glazed donut in Starbucks weeks after the results.  After staring dead in the “eye of the storm”, I passed the time with picturing myself in the University of the Philippines or in De La Salle University.  In fact, these institutions, along with the Ateneo de Manila University, are partners with the National University of Singapore (NUS).  Yet, the change would have been ineffective.  If I were an “iskolar”, the chances of making to the cut would have been higher due to the reputation of the university as the numero uno in the country.  Plus, an applied mathematics undergraduate from this campus is a rare breed of smarts that only less than 1% of the student population can handle.  Likewise, if I were a green archer, I would adapt to the academic environment easy breezy and become a never-ending dean’s lister in my program.  Besides, not only was I a 12-year Lasallian before I became an Atenean, being an honor student in Taft is such a piece of cake.  If Ateneo merits the “honor” title to 3.35-out-of-4.00-average students, La Salle requires only a 3.00.

Thus, transferring schools has nothing to do with my reward!

However, I nodded my head and sighted an open calculus book filled with all of Leibniz’s formulas and relevant transcendental functions by a student whose long exam may be around the corner.  Actually, that was the same book I used under the professorship of the writers of my recommendation letters–two mathematicians of the highest caliber, two doctoral aspirants, and two tickets to Singapore.

This limited me to three categories: professors from the Ateneo other than the above-mentioned two, teachers from De La Salle Lipa Integrated School (DLSL, where I finished my pre-college education), and professionals from UNILAB (where my dad works as an operations manager).

Firstly, the academic excellence I have achieved in the Ateneo is a result of the grade my professors see fit.  My A’s in psychology, Philippine literature, sociology, and communication in English I and II have become their decisions based on my performance in class.  Besides, those no-less-than-92% raw scores in my modules are summations of my marks in long tests, papers, home works, and class participation.  Thus, every other professor in my university would have used these factors as basis for their recommending me to study in NUS.  In that case, I would still say my paalam to the Philippines.

Secondly, not only do my teachers in DLSL have rewarded me first-honor averages of 92.00 and above but also do they have trained me in competitions in and out of campus.  Raising all of my medals (including cash prizes) after public speaking contests, Bible quiz bees, Math Olympiads, and dance competitions has brought DLSL in the newspapers and tarpaulins of South Luzon.  Hence, their memories of my extracurricular contributions, along with my consistency in the first honor roll and my representation of the student body in elementary, would have been my jackpot to a stay in Singapore.

Lastly, asking help from the employees of UNILAB would be like taking candy from a baby.  The main reason is that my father is a well-known operations manager in the business.  A boss in his divisions assigned in Bacolod and Laguna, he could have nudged the shoulders of his co-workers for two recommendation letters for his son.  In fact, when opportunities arise such as workers’ visiting his office, he gets a picture of my high school graduation from his drawer and blabbers about all of my achievements from my one-year-old to my 19-year-old self.  Definitely, UNILAB would make more than googol recommendation letters for me out of my father’s command and pride.

Similar to shifting schools, manipulating the recommendation is an absolute zero.

Nonetheless, I gave the thought experiment one last go.  I proceeded after scrolling through posts about a pineapple and a pen, the hip-hop dab, and Jimmy Fallon’s carpool karaoke in Facebook.  Skimming through all of those hashtags and comment-on-this-post statuses was a pain in my neck until my mother shared an Instagram photo of her being with my father, my younger brother, and UNILAB families in their Christmas celebration for 2015.  Despite the thorn in my heart for their raising their glasses of wine without me, I began testing the value of my family in my TF LEaRN success.

The Bisenios are a middle-class family of four.  Aside from my father, my mother is a housewife; my younger brother is a senior high school student of the University of Sto. Tomas.  We have resided in Lipa City, the capital of Batangas (south of Manila), for more than 15 years–from an apartment with broken door knobs to a two-story house with a 13-by-7.5-m basketball court at the front.  Under these circumstances have I yielded three variations: my father as jobless, my family as a group with more than two children, and the Bisenios as a resident in Manila.

If my father were unemployed, all sources of living would have been nothing but putting up a sari-sari store along a sidewalk or laying an empty can of sardines and dancing around like a fool to raise funds.  Undoubtedly, the Ateneo would have given me a 100% financial aid scholarship for my finishing a five-year course in the university.  All I have to do would be to pass all of my subjects and complete 20 hours of community service every year.  Under such circumstance, I would still remain as a TF LEaRN scholar, a miraculous mean to fund my stay in Singapore.  My father is jobless; my mother is jobless; everyone in the family is jobless.  Hence, the scholarship would have been beyond academic excellence, service, and leadership; it would be because of three words: I need help.

Those would have been the same words if my mother gave birth to three or four more children.  My father is gripping constantly onto his bank accounts to support my brother’s four-stomach appetites, my six-digit tuition fees in the Ateneo, and my family’s credit card bills.  In fact, the loans and payables of my father have forced him to work overtime for higher salaries.  Thus, adding a Zac Jr. or a Zac III would have been another splurge on the child’s clothing, food, and education.  Once again, the scholarship would have remained because of one desperate statement: I NEED HELP.

Fortunately, if we were permanent residents in Manila, my mother would have gotten a job other than a stay-home mom.  The Philippine capital has been the center of job opportunities offered by renowned institutions such as Rebisco, Globe, and ABS-CBN.  Thus, being a call-center agent, a receptionist, or a waitress would have become an opportunity by just a phone call away.  Consequently, with my father’s income, my mother would have brought us to the top performing Philippine Science High School, De La Salle Santiago Zobel School, or University of the Philippines Integrated School.  Nonetheless, such situation would have given me an edge among the other candidates of the TF LEaRN scholarship.  I was chosen, a student of the non-top-10 DLSL; hence, my fate would still be the same if my parents enrolled me in the top 10 high schools in the Philippines.

Like the transferring of schools and the changing of the writers of my recommendation letters, probing my family is a dead end.  Thus, the failure to discover the answer leads me to ask once again:

Why me?

Long did I sip my cup of chocolate even to the point that it was empty.  Exhausted from imagining all possibilities in each variable, my eyes were gradually closing, ready to turn myself in for a few hours.  I gave myself the yawn of a lifetime, one with the largest mouth opening (similar to that of a baboon), until an alarm from Facebook rang to my attention.  It was a video call request of my best friend in America.  After clicking the “Answer” button, lo and behold, his chipmunk-with-eyeglasses face was shown.  The moment he saw me, he raised his voice, “Hey bro!  How’s it going?”  Then, I smiled and replied him with two thumbs up, but at the back of my head, a light bulb appeared:

So he sees me as a brother.

Everything became clear; I am what society thinks of me.  I became a TF LEaRN scholar because that is what the world thinks of me, a realization of the self in the perspective of his/her surroundings.

I became a TF LEaRN scholar because the Office of International Relations of NUS (OIR-NUS) said so.  As the judges, the committee form their own definition of an awardee and use such criterion to choose their “deserving” students.  Since I received an e-mail of my making to the cut, I was considered fit to be called a recipient in the eyes of the OIR-NUS.

In addition, I became a TF LEaRN scholar because the ADMU Mathematics Department said so.  The office chooses one candidate among the Math majors, who embodies the criteria of academic excellence, service, and leadership in their point of view.  Similar to that of OIR-NUS, the chair’s nominating me suggests my character as fitting for the scholarship.  In fact, the recommendation of two professors imply their solid statements that I am the mathematician for the six-month stay in Singapore.

Moreover, I became a TF LEaRN scholar because my family said so.  My parents desire for me to expand my horizon, exploring the world and learning new cultures.  However, my father’s monthly income has been sufficient to satisfy only my family’s needs–food, clothing, household, and education.  Thus, the prevalent financial conditions blackened the chances of my participation in the exchange student program.  In view of this, the awarding of the scholarship has been considered the result of the Bisenios’ desperate need of help to support my studies in NUS.

Indubitably, I became a TF LEaRN scholar because society said so.  This principle is the invariable root that when ignored, those nominations, recommendations, accolades, and straight A’s are finish lines impossible to reach.  In fact, these “treasures” are given to one who fits the criteria of the giver.

Therefore, awardees of titles such as Summa Cum Laude, Magna Cum Laude, Cum Laude, and Honorable Mentions in the graduation ceremony are all products of the Ateneo’s definition of each Latin honor, the criterion being a minimum QPI of 3.87, 3.70, 3.50, and 3.35, respectively.

Moreover, fresh graduates’ receiving calls of employment from HR managers of renowned institutions are results of the former’s fitting the latter’s perspectives of an employee in the business.

Furthermore, people’s promotion in their offices (according to position or ranks) is a consequence of their passing the expectations of their bosses at work.

Lastly, people’s voting a candidate in the presidential elections suggests his/her character as suitable in the eyes of the masses as the next leader of the country.

In the end, I became a TF LEaRN scholar because everyone said I do. ~ Zachary Bisenio


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