I was born in a little village in the Philippines called Pali, in Tigbauan, in Iloilo province, on the island of Panay. Nobody has ever heard of it. It was a village with nothing, accessible only by foot.
I was already the sixth child in a family that would end up with seven children. When I was two years old, my mother realized we would all become peasants if we didn’t leave. She moved us to a densely packed slum in Iloilo City called Gomez Beach. We were all thrilled with our tiny hut, which had no electricity or running water.
A pivotal event changed the arc of my life when I was five years old.
Nuns from a Catholic order called the Daughters of Charity began talking with my mother and older sisters one day. The Daughters of Charity ran one of the best convent schools in Iloilo City: the Colegio del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus. They had just established a free department for underprivileged children – and they asked my sisters and me to attend. They closed the free department a few years later, but five of us kept going and they didn’t charge us anything.
What did that education mean for me? From being an illiterate child, ignorant, malnourished and insecure, I became someone who learned to read, discovered numbers and devoured everything.
At 14, I moved to Manila. My mother was already there, and we were able to get a meeting with the guidance counselor at Union High School of Manila. He let me enroll on sheer faith and a promissory note.
I was very determined to study in the United States. When high school ended, I got a full scholarship to the University of the Philippines Diliman, with free tuition and a monthly stipend; it was really the first time I ever had cash in my hands – but I still wanted to go to the U.S. I got turned down twice for a visa, but then Mexican-Americans in the Mormon Church [which I’d joined at age 11] who knew me and loved me offered a bond to ensure that I would return, so I finally got to go when I was 18. My two older sisters paid for my first year at Brigham Young University in Utah, but after that it was all scholarships. I earned my bachelor’s degree in Russian and international relations and my master’s at Harvard. After that, I completed my PhD in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It was the late 1980s, and I was very lucky to be in a field in great turmoil. I got a job in Moscow – with my office in the Communist Party headquarters.
I was tiny and female and Asian in a very sexist society. It was an amazing opportunity to cut my teeth in a society that was imploding.
Over the years, my career has taken me through work and leadership positions with the Harvard Strengthening Democratic Institutions Project and the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict; to being vice-dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy; and to working on credit risk at the insurance giant, AIG. I speak six languages, and I’ve written a book on Russian nationalism. Today, I work at Microsoft in Singapore.
There has been a lot of research on the positive impact of education on girls and women. Speaking personally, education really is the great equalizer. If you grow up underprivileged, education offers you the chance to discover an entire world. You might live in a village or under a bridge in Manila and know nothing about anything, but education can set your mind free. Any time you open up a mind, you’re opening up possibilities.
You discover you can be more – and as you advance, you realize that you can specialize. You realize that you can do just about anything.
The economic growth we have in Asia looks a lot less impressive when you consider that half the population is not realizing its full potential. Women are ready to do more and be more. We can be engineers, mathematicians, business people, educators – or whatever else we dream of being.