William & Mary

E-Chat with Amanda Andrei: W&M's First Exchange Student in the Philippines

E-Chat with Amanda Andrei: W&M's First Exchange Student in the Philippines
by Anushya Ramaswamy

Amanda Tira Andrei, '10, like many other William and Mary students, chose to continue the long held tradition here and study abroad for a summer or semester, sometimes both. But in her case, it was location that made her experiences unique from the numerous other students who chose to study abroad; she is the first student from William and Mary to choose to study in the Philippines, among other things in her impressive resume. I was thrilled when given the chance to interview her, by email of course, seeing as she is still in the Philippines and hear her words about her extraordinary experiences in the Philippines.

So Amanda, tell me a little about yourself.

I grew up around Northern Virginia, specifically in the Woodbridge area.  I graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST) in Annandale, VA in 2006.  I attended UVA for one year, intending to be a Physics and American Studies double major with a minor in Asian Pacific American Studies, but ended up transferring to W&M and am on my way to completing a major in Anthropology and a minor in Math. My interests include theater, writing, and other arts (film, photography), but on an amateur level.  I dabble in theater; doing shows here and there (acting, directing, props, and technical crew).  I’m also a journalist for the Asian Fortune, a newspaper in the metro DC area that reports on Asian and Asian American related news.  I also love traveling, especially to cities, but I’ve got to say that Washington D.C. is my favorite, even if many people disagree.  And I’m also a foodie – I love cooking, going to different restaurants, and trying new dishes.  My favorite so far has been sampling all the street food of the Philippines, from “dirty” (homemade) ice cream to chicken gizzard.

What prompted you to transfer from UVA to William and Mary? What did you find different here? What did you like better or dislike here?

There were a lot of factors playing into my decision of originally applying to UVA.  I was intending to be a physics major with a concentration in astronomy, which made UVA was an ideal choice.  It’s one of the top schools in the country, I was getting financial aid, and my brother was attending it, so it seemed fine.  I also figured that it was such a big school, that even if it had a reputation for being “preppy” I would find a group easily.  It was a very tough decision to transfer – I knew that if I left UVA, I would have to start all over again, and that with UVA I was already on a good path in terms of academics and extracurricular activities, but emotionally I felt lonely in such a big school and out of touch with most of the other students.  We seemed to have conflicting interests. 

Whereas here at William and Mary...

At W&M, I felt there was a much friendlier atmosphere, and you actually saw people after meeting them just once.  Here it seemed like you could make friends more easily and bond.  Unfortunately, W&M wasn’t as strong in my academic interests as I had hoped—let me stress though that that has changed as time has gone on—but I was hesitant that I would no longer be able to continue my physics degree, and that the anthropology program didn’t have as many classes in subjects as I would have liked.  In the two years that have passed, however, I’ve found that W&M has provided me with lots of challenging courses in interesting subjects, and the teachers always seem to have time for me.  My biggest lecture class had a little over a 100 people; at UVA, my biggest lecture class had about 250.

Any regrets?

I don’t regret my transfer—I know it was the right thing to do.  I am grateful for everything I learned from UVA.  If not for that school, I would probably not have been able to take classes with two of the best teachers I have ever known, and I probably would not have had such a high interest in racial and ethnic studies.  Despite loneliness, I made a lot of friends and learned how to deal with many different people, and the challenges I faced helped me to be a better person.  But I am thankful that I am at W&M now, where I feel more at home and I can be myself more. 

How and why did you first get involved with FASA? What activities did you enjoy participating in? Is there any other way you are involved or would like to be involved with the Asian community?

I actually met some of the movers and shakers of FASA and the current APA scene on campus when I was making my decision to transfer.  They were so warm and friendly and showed me around campus, that it helped factor into my decision.  I became historian my first year here (sophomore year), and then was elected cultural chair my junior year.  This year, I am president. Wow! Long way from when I was an angsty little first year at UVA.  But FASA has been so good to me – FASA has been a wonderful family, and I never felt like it was too exclusive or inaccessible.  I love that FASA doesn’t take itself too seriously, that they play around and have fun and don’t try to micromanage events. I’d say my favorite events have usually been the most casual ones, where someone usually brings in some food, we talk or have some kind of game, and we all just hang out.  I never feel any pressure to be someone other than who I am.

Professor Tanglao-Aguas tells me you are knee-deep in the Asian Pacific American community.

Oh man maybe I should just send you my resume haha.  Up in DC, I’m involved with a lot of groups… my first internship in DC was with the Organization of Chinese Americans, and it opened up so many doors for me.  I got involved with more groups geared towards helping Asian Americans… from CAPAL, Conference for APA Leadership, which holds weekly intern networking seminars in DC, to DC APA Film, which supports obviously film, but also other arts in the APA community.  I’ve also done regional activities, like FIND, Inc. (Filipino Intercollegiate Networking Dialogue), a networking organization stretching from Maine to Virginia geared to Filipino education.  And I’ve attended lots of conferences – major ones like ECAASU (East Coast Asian American Student Union) to little ones in the DC area.  The sum of it is: there are a lot of them, many more that I haven’t mentioned, but let’s just say I’ve received a wide education from many different teachers and mentors within the Asian Pacific American community. 

Tell me about your exchange program with the Philippines. How did it come about?  Why you choose to study there?

My mother is from the Philippines, and I still have family there.  I wanted to go to the Philippines so I could learn about the type of life she had, the type of culture in which she grew up.  I told Professor Francis Tanglao-Aguas about this, and fortunately he had formerly taught at Ateneo de Manila, one of the top schools in the country.  It took over a year of correspondence between Ateneo, W&M, and the Philippine Embassy to figure out my situation.  Looking back on it, I realize that I was so eager to go to the Philippines, I was blind to the difficulties in my way – good thing, right? I basically had to negotiate with both schools about letting me leave W&M a month early to arrive at Ateneo a week after their own classes had started.  (Classes in the Philippines began November 10; I arrived in the Philippines November 15, had a weekend to rest, and started classes on November 17.) The jetlag was incredible – my first class, a Theology class, was at 9:30 AM (8:30 PM in Virginia), and I was dazedly listening to my classmates reciting Hail Mary after the priest, my Protestant-trained mind trying to keep up with the Catholic prayer.  I remember struggling to copy notes from the overhead about conscience and Thomas Aquinas and feeling like I was going to throw up from my internal body rhythms going haywire, but I still had a literature class at 3:30 to attend.

Which means then that...

So bottom line: logistics were hard, but I was determined enough that I didn’t let them stand in my way.  I was also very lucky that my teachers in the Anthropology Department allowed me to turn in my papers from overseas, and that W&M was very supportive of me studying abroad, particularly in the Reves Center.  They wouldn’t let me settle for anything less than what I wanted.

What classes were you able to take at the Ateneo de Manila?

I took: Rizal and the Emergence of the Philippine Nation (Philippine history from early man to the Philippine revolution); Filipino Literature in English; City Dwellers (Sociology class about urbanization, specifically dealing with Philippine cities); and Marriage, Human Sexuality, and Family in the Catholic Church (Theology).  I also had a private tutor who taught me Tagalog/Filipino at least 7 hours a week.  A word on the theology class, mostly because the other three classes seem self-explanatory, and a lot of people asked me why I would want to put myself through the pain of a theology class with one of the most difficult teachers at the Ateneo.

That's very specific in terms of a religious studies class, the course on Catholic theology. 

I’m not Catholic, but I would consider myself religious.  My dad was Orthodox, my mom was brought up Protestant, and no one in my family has been Catholic in the past three generations.  But I know that Catholicism is a huge part of Philippine culture – 86% of the population considers themselves Catholic, and this is a truly remarkable thing, namely because when I think about it, it seems that it’s an accident of history that the Philippines is Catholic – they really should have ended up like their neighbors in Indonesia and Malaysia.  At any rate, I wanted to study this part of Philippine life, and even though it was very tough and a lot of people thought I was crazy for taking it (9:30 AM class on MWF when I could have had a 4 day weekend and traveled, multiple tests, my first ever oral exams), I enjoyed it the most out of all my classes. I learned so much about Christianity, human nature, the Church, and I had the experience of being taught by a Jesuit.  Plus, as the saying goes, “misery loves company” and I bonded with my theology group mates to the point where I can consider them my barkada (group of close friends)… although that doesn’t really have to do with the class’s content.

Did you manage to squeeze in some of the famous backpacking adventures in South East Asia?

I traveled a lot! So far I’ve visited a lot in the North and South of the Philippines (but not the far south, Mindanao).  I hiked the second highest mountain in the Philippines, Mt. Pulag, snorkeled with whalesharks, and went caving in Bohol in the Visayas.  And I’m not an outdoors person.  I’ve experienced the thrill of riding on top of a jeepney in the Cordillera, partying on the white sands of Boracay until 5 in the morning, and eating street food of chicken intestines and boiled corn in the campus of the University of the Philippines Diliman.  I also visited my first non-Philippine Asian countries: Malaysia and Singapore.  But my heart is in the Philippines – I’ve been challenged to physical, mental, and emotional limits, and I’ve been comforted by the presence of family and newfound friends.  Coming to the Philippines was being homesick for a place I barely remembered and returning to open arms.  I wish everyone could feel that same sense of security, belonging, and peace.

What did you discover in the Philippines that you did not expect? What were some cultural shocks you went through? Feel free to write anything that you want about your trip and experiences….

Haha! Hmmm I feel like I expounded a lot on that in the above question.  But let’s see… culture shocks, I was not prepared for dealing with legal matters in the Philippines. And sometimes, although I knew the proper Philippine etiquette, I would choose to deal with things American style in order to get faster service.  For instance, my luggage was delayed during one trip, and I repeatedly called the airline service and made no qualms about knowing Tagalog, only spoke in straight, rapid English—my normal voice, so to speak.  When it came to personal possessions and money, I wanted to deal with things on my terms, which may have made it uncomfortable for the clerks or assistants dealing with me, but got things done faster. 

I also had some culture shock with the gender relations in this country.  I think some of the guys expected I was a “liberated American” and would try to make moves, but to my American eye it came out as too macho, clumsy, and boorish.  I mean, flirting via text message? Come on now.  And everyone always asked if I were dating anyone, and if my past boyfriends were either Filipino or “American” (they meant ‘white’). 

Let's go back to the U.S. for a bit.  Tell me a little about your internship at the Smithsonian. Start from what kind of internship, how you first applied, what did you do, what you can take away from that experience, etc….

I worked with the Asian Pacific American Program at the Smithsonian, thanks to a scholarship from the Smithsonian for minority students.  I helped out with the Singgalot exhibit, an exhibit about the Filipino American experience.  I also did work for the e-newsletter, helped out with public events, and was encouraged by my mentors to do independent research in areas I normally wouldn’t have explored.  They recommended me a lot of literature, and I gained new perspectives of Japanese Americans, Hawaiians, and South Asians in America. I worked for ten weeks in the best office environment I’ve ever had.  There were three other interns working at the time, so we bonded well.  My bosses were hilarious and we were always joking with each other.  And the Smithsonian is lovely in the summer time, so we would sometimes go out together for lunch, or go to the Folklife Festival and view the exhibits.  The Smithsonian was amazing; I would definitely recommend anyone interested in the social sciences to work there.

If there is anything else you would like to elaborate on or clarify, about your experiences, studying abroad,  or anything else you want, or just advice to students who might want to study in the Philippines?

These are the two things that are the most important to me: family and identity, and for me, both are deeply entwined.  For me, my identity was strongly shaped by my family life, and I went to the Philippines more in search of family than some type of ethnic or political goal.  So for me, the preservation of my family’s memories is one of my sources of strength.  And traveling to the Philippines provided me with that and more.  So if I could give some advice to students, I would say to find out who you are, and find out the best way to shape the person who you want to become.  Don't settle for second choice. My experience when arranging my trip here was, if I want this badly enough, I'll make it happen.  Be resolute in yourself and your plans, and life will open up to you.  Know who you are.

Amazing!  Sounds like you truly are having an amazing experience there.  Thank you for this e-chat, Amanda.  Safe travels.