MASSACHUSETTS, USA – It's a remarkable feat – being placed in positions where they could help shape, in small and big ways, one of the world's most prestigious universities.
But they're chill about it. And that's what makes them stand out in a university where diversity remains a goal, where women continue to be outnumbered, and where it's a big deal to have arrived at where they are now.
Three accomplished Filipino women work at Harvard University in various capacities – a fund-raiser, a leadership mentor, and a history professor. They come from varied backgrounds, grew up in different environments, and are at the university at a transformative period both for America and the academe.
Geraldine Acuña-Sunshine, who was born in Roxas City and finished her BA degree at Harvard and law degree at Columbia University, was recently elected member of the university's Board of Overseers, Harvard's governing body that helps set the direction for the institution.
It is the first for a Filipina, and a victory for the campaign for diversity at the elite university. (READ: Alumni elect Filipina to Harvard governing body)
Married to topnotch hedge fund manager Gabriel Sunshine, she's carved out her own world as an efficient fund-raiser for Harvard and a strong advocate of neurological research, particularly on X-linked Dystonia Parkinsonism, which afflicts her brother and many other victims in the Western Visayas region where her family comes from.
"All this knowledge [at the university], what is it for? It has to be used as a tool to help other people," said the 48-year-old Sunshine.
Myrish Cadapan-Antonio, a 43-year-old lawyer born and schooled in Dumaguete City, is program director at the Center for Public Leadership (CPL) of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. The highest-ranking Filipino at HKS, Antonio joined the US workforce after finishing her masters in public administration in the same school. (Editor's note: A previous version of this story wrote her middle name as Capadan. We regret the error.)
"My work at CPL inspires me to help our students lead with greater impact and to do my share in that goal," Antonio said. "It also made me realize who we really do our work for, our real audience – the communities that remain underrepresented, undervalued. This inspires me to always frame our work with our students here in that lens."
Before Harvard, Antonio practiced law in Dumaguete and dabbled in politics – serving as councilor for two terms and running for vice mayor in 2010, a lost bid that she attributed to her being away on another study grant prior to the campaign.
Genevieve Clutario, a Fil-Am who grew up in Los Angeles, California, teaches history, race, and gender at Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. She had just finished her doctorate at the University of Illinois when Harvard took interest in her work.
What's kept her busy in the last academic year is her book on women and power, analyzing how in the colonial period, the state and Filipino nationalists used fashion, beauty, and public spectacles to establish power and how, in turn, Filipino women used the same to negotiate their own definitions of citizenship.
Because she grew up in a predominantly immigrant neighborhood in LA, 38-year-old Clutario said she never had to deal with racism growing up. "I knew it existed, but I didn't experience it," she said.
The political climate in the US now, Clutario conceded, is a bit scarier.
On challenges in career
Sunshine: One key challenge I've faced throughout the years is how to rally others to get things done. Bold action and ideas cannot be carried out alone, but rather require the buy-in, assistance, and contributions of other people.
My biggest challenge at Harvard is how to engage with people who are all incredibly gifted and smart. No matter how big a fish you are in your pond, once you get to Harvard you quickly realize that you are but a small fish in a massive ocean of intellectual capability and burgeoning human potential.
And yet, it is important to remember that we each have our own special gifts that make us shine. So there's no use comparing yourself to others. Someone will always be above and below you. That's just life, so might as well just figure out your lane in the universe and do your own thing!
'If Harvard is to remain at the helm of higher education, it must be willing to open its doors to more people like me.' – Myrish Cadapan-Antonio
Antonio: Before Harvard, I was a legal professional in the Philippines for 14 years [in Dumaguete City]. Simultaneous with the struggle of starting a legal career was my entry into local politics [as city councilor]. A neophyte with only student politics as experience, I embraced the challenge of the campaign with meager resources and was given the mandate of my fellow Dumaguetenos, placing second and the only female member of a council of 10.
The greatest challenge of that first term was breaking through the society of a predominantly-male legislative body within a minority stance. It was a baptism of fire and one that until today, has brought me both lessons and scars, more of the former than the latter.
It was such a hostile environment, I cannot recall how many times I stood up exercising a motion on personal privilege to deliver a privilege speech, using the podium as my shield against a loss in numbers over my proposed ordinances. I cannot recall another time in my life where I was pushed to a combative mode, to assert that as a woman I had a voice men ought to listen to and to imbibe this deep sense of commitment and dedication to speak for the minority.
These circumstances made me think deeply about public service and public administration. In 2013, when my hemophiliac twin boys' medical supply was practically dwindling, I gave a shot at applying to the Harvard Kennedy School for a master's degree in public administration.
Clutario: Academia is a difficult profession. The number of PhDs in comparison to the number of tenure track jobs is so bad that I don't want to say.
Just getting a job at all was something I knew would be challenging if not almost impossible and I'm early enough in my career so that experience is still fresh in my mind.
It's difficult to see so many brilliant friends not land the jobs they want simply because those jobs don't exist. I'm also saddened to see when the lack of jobs pushes people into terrible work conditions.
'There's no use comparing yourself to others. Someone will always be above and below you...so might as well just figure out your lane in the universe and do your own thing!' – Geraldine Acuña-Sunshine
There are also very few of us whose area of expertise is on the Philippines and Filipino experiences beyond the Philippines. When sharing my work, I feel compelled to include an extra step in justifying or at the very least emphasizing the significance of Filipino history.
On parenting and work
Sunshine: I love being a mother and I appreciate my children so much. I tell my children how important it is to be kind, grateful, and resourceful, and remind them to use their God-given gifts in the best way possible.
If my kids take these lessons to heart, then I know I have succeeded in my role as a mom. Of course, I could not accomplish what I have accomplished so far without the support of my husband and life-partner, Gabe Sunshine.
My advice to other working moms is to drop the guilt. Your kids will appreciate you for being a great role model when you follow your passions, live your life fully without regret, and do everything in your power to share your God-given gifts with the world.
Antonio: Technological advancements have undoubtedly made parenting more challenging, as has almost everything else in the world today compared to what it was for us growing up.
One significant thing that has helped me juggle work-life balance is having a partner like my husband, one who is committed to similar values than I am. We both are on the same page on using love and trust, a deep sense of values education to our boys, and leadership by example. It also matters that I work in an office that values promoting a healthy work-life balance so I am home most days after 5 and have no work during weekends.
I still struggle with juggling an effective work-life balance and I take the challenge day by day. I believe that we must give our children the chance to also prove themselves worthy of our trust and to think beyond themselves. I believe all moms who are similarly situated can understand this predicament.
'It’s difficult to see so many brilliant friends not land the jobs they want simply because those jobs don’t exist.' - Genevieve Clutario
Clutario: I grew up with a large extended family that provided a network of support that I long for. Up until I was 4 or 5 years old, my lola took care of me along with some of my other cousins while our parents worked.
My parents as well as my partner's parents live on the west coast and help us out as much as possible. I'm also working on not feeling guilty. My partner constantly reassures me to never feel bad. But, of course, as one of my colleagues put it, gender roles and expectations brought upon guilt almost immediately after giving birth.
I like that I belong to a community of scholars within and beyond Harvard who know my kid and my partner and care about them as well.
On lessons learned at Harvard
Sunshine: Harvard has taught me (and continues to teach me) how to think and how to solve real world problems both large and small. When I face a new dilemma or unfamiliar issue, I often tell myself: "You went to Harvard, you can figure this out!" It's the same encouragement I give the students I mentor.
I bring to Harvard the gift of creating community because I know that no matter how brilliant you are, life is meaningless when you are alone. It is so important to always find and be with people who inspire you, who make you want to be a better person, and who constantly yet lovingly challenge you to stretch and expand both mind and heart.
Being able to listen generously and to argue one's position while appreciating diverse opinions, all within the context of community, is the key not only to personal growth but to fulfilling Harvard's vision of veritas, which is the pursuit of truth, knowledge, and wisdom.
Antonio: Harvard has taught how to lead more with humility and greater impact. Meeting people who have achieved so much yet are so grounded makes me understand that leadership is a lot about humility and understanding the context of the communities we want to work with in greater impact.
I think I bring a unique international perspective and cross-sector experience to Harvard that is important in the global university that it is. Plus the Filipino work ethic of resilience, hard work, and an open can-do attitude that is helpful in fast-paced and high performing professional environments such as Harvard.
If Harvard is to remain at the helm of higher education, it must be willing to open its doors to more people like me. Harvard remains challenged in terms of diversity and inclusion. It needs to engage more students and staff from various backgrounds to understand the world more and to help prepare its students to lead more significantly in the world.
Clutario: This is my first job after graduate school, so in a way I’m learning everything from Harvard. I learn from my students more about multi-tasking, I learn from my mentors how to think bigger. I’m also slowly learning to not be afraid to ask. That is, ask for help, ask for funding, ask if someone will be willing to read some of my writing.
I'm learning what it means to have a platform. Being at Harvard doesn't automatically create a platform for you, but it creates more possibility to be heard and to have impact. I'm seeing from my colleagues how they cultivate a platform and also the responsibility that a platform comes with.
What do I bring to the table? I'm bringing my area of expertise on studies of gender, Filipino Studies, Asian American Studies, and the global south. I teach classes that others don't but students are interested in. I also connect the university to a network of Filipino Studies scholars who make a growing and vibrant field. – Rappler.com