I’m A Filipina USC Graduate — Stop Associating Students of Color with the College Bribery Scam

Photo by Emily Louie

When I was young, America was a dream. My parents were overseas Filipino workers and would come home once a year with balikbayan boxes — massive boxes filled with imported goods. Having one box in your house was a blessing from God. We would crowd around this magical object filled with Spam, Irish Spring soaps, Hanes underwear, Hershey’s Kisses (my favorite), and bulk goods you could find at your local Costco.

Opening this box was a rite of passage. I had my first try at the age of six, and I remember telling my grandfather, “Lolo, this smells like America.”

After their vacation was over, like my parents, the goods would be gone. It was early on that I realized this empty box filled with treats and presents were only fleeting. I realized that I needed to find a gift to give to my parents that they could always have, something that nobody could take from them (and me).

For me, this gift was an education.

I’d dreamed of attending American schools since I was a little girl. Since then, I’ve crossed my T's and dotted my I’s in order to get into a distinguished American university. I stand now on the other side of that dream, having graduated in the spring of 2018 in full view of my parents, loved ones, and friends.

Seeing Christine Bumatay, B.A. Public Relations, Cum Laude on a piece of paper was, by far, the proudest day of my life. Holding my diploma was worth something that almost made up for all those years of separation from my parents. Owning my diploma meant that I would be the first from my neighborhood to graduate from an American university. Even now, I look back and see the path I forged for generations to come.

This story, of course, leads us to the recent stomach-churning college bribery scam. Unless you’ve been living in Bikini Bottom, you know that the University of Southern California has been hit with SCandal after SCandal throughout the years — the SCam only being one of them.

This past week, I encountered a few individuals who decided it would be funny to crack some jokes about the validity of my USC acceptance.

“Did you pay to get in?” one of them teased.

“You had Oprah as your commencement speaker. You must be spoiled,” the other person said.

I kept my mouth shut. Although their remarks were facetious, being the butt of the joke was like a slap to the face. I knew what they were seeing when they saw me: a spoiled, rich Asian expat whose parents had paid for SAT scores and American ghostwriters to get their daughter into school. In their mind, my merit was interchangeable with the color of my skin, an unwelcome yet common situation I’ve experienced as a woman of color. Their intentions were all too clear. Although I have never been described as this trifecta of privilege, the fact that they had the confidence to make these jokes to me, a person of color, is a direct reflection of America’s broken racial system.

As a whole, injustice lies not within these petty comments, but from a system that accuses POC of not being intelligent enough to be accepted into prestigious universities. Further, it was another form of disenfranchisement that our degrees are devalued by the public’s perception of USC post-scandal.

In the midst of my acrimonious thoughts, as Oprah would say, I had an aha moment.

As a first-generation Filipina who did fairly well in school, it seems there was absolutely nothing I could do to truly prove that I was deserving of this education. According to the public, my $70,000-a-year-education is a fair exchange for the resources, networking, and unlimited access I received while at school.

Wealth may discriminate at USC, but the “University of Spoiled Children” pejorative does not. It didn’t matter that I come from the poorest of the poor and am now laden with debt — my right to education and herculean effort to claim it was still being questioned by the same people who were aware that these bribery scams have hurt people like me the most. These cynical, gilded scams have kept hardworking and deserving students out of elite institutions, and now even those who made it through have been tarred with the same shameful brushstroke.

Further, I found it funny that the same people who’ve supported inner-city programs, more representation, females’ rights, and any and all POC-related issues could turn their back against students who’ve been accepted to prestigious universities solely on merit and talent — no socio-political, educational agendas, or affirmative action involved.

This cognitive dissonance is a dangerous game.

From what I’ve learned, it is an automatic assumption that many (not all) people of color are accepted into a prestigious university due to one of the following subjects: sports, scholarship, music, legacy, and my absolute favorite — affirmative action.

I played volleyball, participated in musical theatre, and maintained a decent GPA throughout high school. By all definitions, I’m a first-generation college student. Consequently, the acceptance of POCs at prestigious universities does not make us academic handouts; in contrast, it is a direct reflection of our Brown/Black brilliance. I can’t tell you how many times white, rich people have argued for meritocracy while believing that there is a spot for them at distinguished universities. Comments like these must stop:

“Oh, I get it. You got in because you’re an immigrant-turned citizen.”

“USC? You don’t mean you went to the University of Southern California!”

“Bet you wrote about your childhood experiences in your admissions essay. Bless your heart, you have no trace of a Filipino accent.”

This was definitely not the first time a white person has asked me to validate my college acceptance, nor was it the first time microaggressions have been randomly thrown at me. Consequently, it was not the first time I wasn’t applauded for my defiant work ethic and boldness but instead was reminded that the reason I got into USC was simply a product of my circumstances.

Asians are often epitomized as the model minority. One could argue that Asian-American identity is constructed based simply on education, low criminality, income, and family-based values. In this particular case, low-income Asians are not only disenfranchised but are forgotten in the admissions process.

Further, the model minority myth poses an evident threat to the forgotten minorities of academia. The fact that someone from war-torn Afghanistan has to check off the “Asian” box the same way a kid from a Hong Kong international school does presents an inconsistency within this particular demographic. Affluent Asians tend to take spots at universities because of their families’ abilities to pay tuition in full; in contrast, lower-income Asians/Asian-Americans are ousted from the admissions pile because of their lack of financial and social success. This blanket perspective of the Asian demographic is a blatant inequality and calls for necessary change.

In terms of inequality within the collegiate admissions process, middle class/upper-middle-class Asians/Asian-Americans are also at risk. There is a sweeping generalization that Asians do not need college funding because they are able to afford it. In my case, this is the bucket that I have unfortunately fallen in. I wasn’t able to receive government funding, FAFSA, scholarships, grants, etc. due to my parents’ upper-middle-class salaries. The only way I could afford my education was to borrow money from third-party lenders — a decision my parents and I will have to pay for the rest of our lives. Every day, I frequently sign into the Credit Karma app to check if my student loan debt has decreased — nope, it’s still a robust amount of $204,938.

$204,938. The price of my American dream come true.

So, you see, you can’t group all Asian/Asian-Americans together. We are not cut from the same cloth. Some of us escaped our country due to lack of resources while some of us grew up bathing in our ancestors’ accrued opulence. Nevertheless, it is a form of racism that people don’t even ponder on the fact that perhaps there are different Asians who do not come from money, and who, case in point, have more American ideals than their rich Asian counterparts (ie hard-working and middle-class).

It would take a novel to explain the social class distinctions in Asian society, but what I can tell you is that in America, middle-class (not crazy and rich) Asians are often seen as second-class citizens. This is definitely true for Filipinos, whose history of colonialism has almost diminished our entire socio-cultural identity. Between rape, murder, and wars against the Spanish/Chinese/Americans/Japanese/etc, my ancestors didn’t necessarily have time to invest, grow a business, accrue money — so that maybe someday, their great-granddaughter can have a trust fund and chance at life.

Let it be known that many first-/second-gen Filipino/Filipino-Americans have never been able to embody the model minority stereotype. Many Filipinos abroad have worked low-paying jobs that nobody wanted just so they could send money back home to their families. In fact, we are now only able to invest and save up money for the future. While most Western nations have had centuries to earn and save money, the majority of Filipinos have finally been given the opportunity to work and live overseas to reach their financial potential.

Enter Irith and Christopher (my parents), two registered nurses whose jobs are highly-regarded and whose joint salaries place them in the upper tax bracket — but are still treated as second-class citizens due to evolved forms of racism.

Well before I was in college, white privileged folks were more than happy to pawn off their familial responsibilities onto my parents’ shoulders. One day, a white woman stormed into my dad’s ER, ready to eschew her elderly parents to the hospital system.

“Just find them a home. I have things to do. I don’t care which one,” she said.

Sometimes, this is how people would speak to my father when they came into his ER. The cost of my pristine, prestigious, and perfect education was this type of behavior that my parents’ had to endure for four decades.

It is not news that it has been a constant battle being Brown or Black in White America. Our whole lives, my POC friends and I have wordlessly carried the blessing and burden of our own stellar achievements. From President’s Honor Roll Awards to Summa Cum Laude, brilliant POCs have perfected the humble demeanor expected on stage when receiving their awards to avoid confrontation and racist comments about being an outlier. Further, you will find instances where a POC standing with the most awards almost always makes a room feel uncomfortable while people openly applaud white mediocrity. This behavior needs to stop.

It took me twenty-three years to realize that although we have tirelessly worked all our lives, we are still systematically kept silent because we are afraid that white people will retaliate, whether passively or directly, at our excellence because it makes them question their own capabilities.

For years, I have been playing devil’s advocate for White America. I would dismiss comments like, “Your accent is non-existent, bravo!” and “You’re lucky that you’re Filipino. They’re the best Asians” because I thought for the longest time they genuinely did not understand our culture.

But because of this scandal, I have changed my mind. This is a red-flag reminder for me that these people have historically utilized the color of their skin in order to oppress and blackmail into what they want.

To my fellow POCs: As long as you do not allow it to happen, the world will never be able to take the education you have earned. I suggest, above all else, to sprint (not run) toward the direction of your dreams.

To the naysayers: Before I was even born, the world was set up to have people like me fail. My experiences have taught me that nothing is impossible. I truly believe that if you educate yourself and put compassion first, things like bribery, greed, racism, and hate will be no more. I believe in you to do, and be, better.

To everyone: When a person of color is admitted to a prestigious university, we should not call upon affirmative action or meritocracy to justify their excellence. Instead, we should collectively celebrate as a society. A brilliant person is about to study in order to change the world for the better. The way the world is going now, we simply need more excellent leaders, activists, thinkers, and doers — it shouldn’t matter how or where they received their knowledge; it matters what they do with it.

To close, I — and so many countless POC — dreamed a dream that really should never have happened. And yet, it did.

The fact that a Brown girl from Mandaluyong City, Philippines graduated from the University of Southern California based solely on her tireless work ethic is evidence that there is hope for the future.

My admission was the only free thing about my education. I didn’t have to pay to be seen as good enough. Nobody can take my education from me, but every time someone berates, jests, or teases about if I even deserve it — they are stripping it of its struggle and value, which may well be the same thing.