This photo was captured at my grandfather’s retirement party from the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor. Circa 1989. From left to right: family friend (left), Grandpa Isabelo (center) and Grandma Felisa (right)

Destiny Isn’t Real, But Determination Is

The cold chill pierced my goose-bumped laden skin forewarning me, “Don’t do it.” The wind howled forcefully, “No, don’t jump!” But as I peered out of the gaping door of that airplane I could not but relish in the inevitable freedom. A cathartic exhilaration from the shackles of decades of self-doubt, loathing and shame all because of my being — my identity. However, quickly, my yearning for salvation was again muffled by the rumbling propellers that echoed the words of many before, including myself, “Give-up.”

So I quit.

I pulled back. I threw my hands back onto that door frame, clutching it tightly and feeling the lifelessness of the cold metal. My heart raced like a Kentucky Derby horse. I was scared shitless. I couldn’t jump. I was a coward. But quickly, my instructor gave me a reassuring nudge — a subtle acknowledgement like that of my grandpa’s solidarity — and whispered, “You can do it…Ready1…2…3!”

Finally, I jumped. I screamed to the top of my lungs. Yelling to the world that I did it! I was no longer bound by my inhibitions. Nor defined by the self-inflicted labels of my youth: product of a teenage single mom, kid from a poor neighborhood, first-generation college student and closeted-gay. All that internalization had me feeling insignificant.

But in that moment, I was emboldened; and I felt empowered.

Perseverance

My mom went to an all-girls catholic school in an affluent part of Oahu, Hawaii, which is a half hour drive from the less glamorous Kalihi — where she lived and I grew up. She was the captain of her cheerleading squad and on student council. My father on the other hand came from a rougher and poorer area, and was raised by a single father because he had lost his mother, my grandma, to depression and suicide. He lived a carefree life: one of boxing, drugs and truancy. My parents met at a bus stop, fell in love and had me — they were only 18. They separated shortly after because my dad took his sparring lessons out on my mom. Luckily, she was bold and left. My only remembrance of him now is the surname that I carry, Noble.

Filling the father-void was my maternal grandpa. He coddled me as if I were his son. Instead of playing with the kids down the street, I would be at his side patching up a leaking faucet or hanging drywall, all the while curiously listening to his stories of perseverance. He was the epitome of the American Dream. He immigrated from the Philippines as a teenager in the early 40’s with just a 3rd grade education and a contract to toil in the sugar cane plantation. My grandpa brought over my grandma and three kids afterwards; and in the late 60s had my mother, the last of 7 children. He wanted only the best for his kids: a good education and bright future — echoing many of the sentiment of immigrants from that era. He earned his living first as a farmer, taxi-driver, auto-mechanic and finally as a welder for the US Naval Shipyard at Pearl Harbor. Eventually, he saved enough money to build a small 3-story apartment, which would later become our home.

In summary, my grandpa was the opposite of a “quitter.” He was the embodiment of diligence and perseverance.

Self-determination

I grew up in Kalihi, which is a melting pot of working class Native Hawaiians and immigrants from China, Philippines, Samoa and elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific. Kalihi is where high poverty and crime overshadows the more glamorous bright spots. However, like my grandfather, I strived to write a different story for myself. I took every opportunity to prove that I was not fated to a predisposition of unlucky personal and societal circumstances. I wanted to make him proud. Thus, I studied hard in school. I got involved in student council and played sports. And I positioned myself for a “brighter future” with the Health Academy, a vocational program for aspiring health professionals andUpward Bound, a high school college-preparatory program for first-generation college students. I desperately wanted to get out of Kalihi — and college would ultimate be my key to freedom.

At 17 years old, I traveled over 4000 miles to attend Saint Louis University. But I didn’t stop there. I crossed over the ocean to China, Spain and the Philippines. I worked. I traveled. I went back to school for a Master’s of Public Health; all the while proving my worth. Now, I am working my dream job in global health and youth empowerment as a Global Health Corps fellow in Malawi. However, my journey was not all that perfect; and an early turning point came during my first year of college when I almost dropped-out. I preoccupied myself with what every college freshman struggles with: autonomy, assimilation and responsibility. I failed two of my five classes: Calculus and Chemistry.

But worst of all, I felt unworthy of being there — especially since the other kids came from “better schools” and “perfect families.”

At the end of the year, I packed up my bags, said farewell and moved back to Hawaii. I worked for Upward Bound as a residential advisor and counselor for underprivileged high school students aspiring to be the first in their families to go to college — which is the same program that I was a part of. I saw a lot of myself in these young kids: optimism and determination. But I also saw how unconfident they were — I was — about the future. However, at the end of the summer I was reminded that life should not be dictated by destiny, but rather by the decisions and choices we make. It is about claiming what we are entitled to: happiness, health and a brighter future. So after that summer, I returned to SLU — and never looked back — holding close the inspiration of my grandfather and the determination of these students.

Empowerment

Three years ago, I peered out the door of that airplane and doubted myself. I wanted to turn back. But I found that inner strength and inspiration. You might have encountered a similar experience once before, but you made a decision — and if not, then I hope you find the strength and inspiration to do so the next time. I was 27 then when I summoned the courage to “jump” and skydive out of an airplane at 15,000 feet.

That was the day I parted — and continue to do so — from my past of pent-up shame, self-hate and doubt.

My personal story is one that draws strength from my grandfather; however, my greatest motivation comes from the young people who have stories of their own that inspires despite their misfortunes and “disadvantaged” circumstances. It is a story where my commitment to global and public health comes from a moral duty to empower underprivileged and marginalized youth to navigate their own lives — as my grandpa and mother have, and as I will — by nudging them towards a path of perseverance and determination.

If we are the decisions that define us, then this is who I am: empowered.