by Zia Kalong, Content Strategist, Vision International Philippines
Vision International Philippines (VIP), in partnership with the U.S. Embassy Manilla, held the first ever J-1 Cultural Exchange Alumni Tour where nearly thirty (30) former participants of the J-1 Internship, Trainee, and Summer Work Travel programs attended. The first of its kind in the country, the idea of a cultural J-1 alumni event was conceived by Vision International Philippines’ CEO and former J-1 intern, Mary Lou Cunanan. “ As a J-1 alumna myself, I understand the great responsibility and privilege of being a Filipino Exchange Visitor in the U.S. It was an experience like no other – one that I can honestly say has changed my life in bigger and better ways than I could have imagined. Today, I believe in championing cultural exchange as a powerful catalyst in the arena of global diplomacy.”
The alumni shared countless stories, amusing anecdotes, and unforgettable lessons they picked up during their stay in America as Exchange Visitors. The group quickly connected with each other, thanks to their shared experiences living in America. When asked about the biggest change they observed about themselves after the program, most of the participants acknowledged being ‘really shy ’ before the program. This comes as no surprise seeing as one of the treasured Filipino (or generally, Asian) values include being reserved, as opposed to the Western ideal of being extroverted. One alum shared that, in America, you’re surrounded by ‘"the friendliest people who greet you all the time and make you feel really welcomed." They also noted how living alone in a foreign country developed in them a deep sense of independence.
After bonding over breakfast, the group headed straight to the U.S. Embassy where they were warmly welcomed and escorted to the American Center (formerly Thomas Jefferson Information Center) by the Chief of Non-Immigrant Visa Unit, Mr. Martin Lahm. Mr. Lahm enthusiastically reminded the group of the true purpose of the Exchange Visitor Programs: cultural exchange. He also encouraged the alumni to share their personal insights and experiences to everyone at home –friends, classmates, co-workers, families, partners, and local communities. Mr. Lahm also thanked the alumni for their participation in a public diplomacy program before advising them to continue exploring the world of opportunities available to them, especially as J-1 alumni. Mr. Ryan Bradeen, Asst. Cultural Affairs Officer, then shared opportunities with the group, discussing programs such as the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), EducationUSA, Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) as well as the Philippine-American Educational Foundation (PAEF) which administers the Fulbright program. While some of the alumni were keen on pursuing graduate studies through EducationUSA, others sought community engagement initiatives available like the popular YSEALI program. Overall, it was helpful and valuable for alumni to know that there were other programs, opportunities, and adventures available to them.
After a brief history lesson on the Philippine-American relationship, Cultural Affairs Specialist Ms. Eren Joy Bautista gave us a tour of the grounds, sharing fascinating trivia about the age-old buildings and the historied American flag staunchly erected in the middle of the plaza. Before moving onto the next stop, the group enjoyed a refreshing lunch break along the Manila Bay. Our tour continued as we drove through Forbes Park and McKinley Road (named after former American president William McKinley) inside the country’s Central Business District. Indeed, Makati City was the prime testament of the friendship between the Philippines and the United States of America. In fact, just outside the former Fort McKinley sits the largest American military cemetery outside the U.S., the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial. We even had the pleasure of meeting a squadron of the Philippine Army who were also visiting the site.
Our final stop on our tour was at the former American University of the Philippines , which later on became the country’s official national university. We split into two groups and toured the vast campus grounds on “ jeepneys .” Few national symbols are as renowned as the Philippine jeepney. The iconic vehicle was a byproduct of World War II which left us with U.S. military jeeps. These leftover jeeps eventually found their way to the streets of Manila. It is said that “ jeepney ” is a combination of “ jeep ” (from General Purpose or GP, hence jeep) and “ jitney ” (American taxicab).
The tour ended on the perfect note as the group, quite appropriately so, received one final lesson from the history-making tour: that as J-1 alumni, their journey as Philippine ambassadors to the world has only begun