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Futures and Options II: Exchange Student

Flash back to 1998, I was a junior in high school in the Philippines. I would have been at the equivalent of 9th grade in the US educational system at age 15. At this point in my life I had been given one of the best opportunities to experience a whole new culture and lifestyle. I had a chance to be an exchange student in middle America for one full year. This post is about how passing up this opportunity changed my life more than I would have ever known at the time.

Note: This is Part 2 of a series about my early choices in life which have gotten me to where I am today. If you're interested, please stay tuned to the next parts as I go through them. Thanks for reading!

The Rotary Club

Back during those days my parents had been invited to be part of the Rotary Club in the small town we lived in. There were various kinds of people who were in the club -- writers, businessmen, professionals (lawyers, doctors, teachers, etc.). My parents are businessmen who had very little in the way of a social life. Membership in the Rotary Club meant having a more active social life not only for them, but also for my sister and I.

If you haven't experienced being part of the Rotary Club, I would like to give a perspective that's a little different from an actual member -- as a child of parents who were active in the club.

I only actually have good things to say about the club. It's a great way of getting people who have the means of making a difference in society to get together and actually as a group make a difference. Socially the gatherings are always fun and having people of the same civic minded duty to give back to the community brings a certain kind of purpose to people's lives and spirits. Accomplishing things as a group is always a very visceral and primal satisfaction that I would highly recommend being part of a civic social group like the Rotary Club.

The opportunities afforded to the children of families that are part of the club are bordering on obscene. I've found that being a son of Rotarians (what the members are called and call themselves) gave me access to great role models of sufficiently accomplished people and gave me access to early leadership opportunities that I wouldn't otherwise have gotten going it alone (or just being a teacher's pet in school). The opportunities for building character early in life is so valuable especially to children growing up in a small town, in a third world country, with a simple dream of living a better life and making a difference.

It's through the Rotary Club where I got an opportunity to spend some time at a youth camp that doubled as a leadership training seminar. It was held at a remote camp where kids the same age as me (around 15-16 years old) who apparently qualified for a foreign exchange student program were being groomed and assessed for actual eligibility. I forget the exact number but I remember being amidst around 70 kids of the same age when the camp was opened and an "orientation" session happened.

At the time I had not known what the whole purpose of the event was. I was told it was a leadership training camp but that was it. I had some idea what that meant, but as a 15 year old I had no idea what I was going to learn at that camp were going to be important for the rest of my adult life. I still have lessons learned then that stay with me now and have shaped how I view leadership and character in general. Before I go there, let me back up a bit and say how I qualified for this leadership camp.

Born or Made?

Before getting to the leadership camp I had been lucky to have gone to Australia (Adelaide, South Australia) when I was 14 years old. It was an event for the preservation of the environment. I had no interest in the politics of all that, but I did have a certain appetite for travel and adventure. Being a young man (a kid really) the opportunity to experience a different culture even just for two weeks was oddly appealing to me. Now that I'm a parent myself I have this horrible sinking feeling in my stomach at the thought of sending my daughter off to a place that's ~9 hours away by plane to foster parents whom I've not met before and hoping she would come back safe after 14 days.

This experience gave me a certain level of self confidence that not a lot of 14 year olds were allowed to experience (or even had the opportunity to experience). That two week experience in semi self-reliance does things to a young person's mind. Knowing that you can survive and be self-reliant at an early age gives you a certain drive to "go get 'em" attitude towards achieving your goals (and setting audacious ones that will constantly keep you challenging yourself). Up to this day I have a very vivid recollection of how amazing I thought Australia (even just Adelaide) was as a country and how I could totally live here someday (which, after 16 years, has come true -- albeit in Sydney instead of Adelaide).

Experiencing a genuinely different culture gave me a better look at what characteristics actually mattered in a person of the world. To illustrate what I mean by this, early on I had a realization that traits like race, gender, income level, religion, nationality, and personal preferences/believes actually do NOT matter in the grand scheme of things. What actually matters is your attitude, your contribution to society (no matter how small or large), and how you affect other people's lives. Some people give back with service, some affect other people just by being there, some as inspirations or role models, and some as actual support people hands-on helping people around them. Leaders I saw not for who they are, but what they do and what they enable other people to accomplish.

I think certain kinds of people are born who are attuned to this training and molding. I don't claim to be born to be a leader, but I do think I was malleable to a point for leadership training. I've displayed drive and a capacity to be self-directed in my learning, my work, and generally with carrying myself. It also helped that I had a sense of humor about trying something and failing, that I felt like I literally could do anything I wanted and have a laugh afterwards -- whatever it was.

Coming back from that trip gave me some insight into what I actually could do and the places I could reach if I worked hard, set my mind to it, and kept an open mind about what's out there. It gave me an appreciation of both the diversity of the people in the world as well as how we're all really just the same -- it just happened that we were born in different countries, have different religions, have different races, and have different hair/eye/skin color. Deep down we're all just citizens of this world whether we believe this or not.

Oh the Politics

Once back from the Australia trip, I happened to sign up for a local government initiative to expose kids in high school to how local government actually works in the Philippines. Just to be clear, I was asked if I wanted to go, and I thought "sure, more traveling and meeting more people, and learning things -- what could possibly go wrong?" (not in exactly those words). Boy was I wrong about that.

First of all, politics in the Philippines is a very messy thing. In first world countries, politics is actually something that accomplishes things -- you have parliaments, congresses/senates, and actual democratic process. In the Philippines it's a mix of show business, fraternity, and business -- and it's not even the good parts. You get celebrity through notoriety, gang mentality, and mob-like techniques to gain, apply, and keep authority and thus power. There is no political platform, no ideology, and no direction whatsoever. Then you get a peek into the system and it's literally a peek into how the sausage is made -- and it's not pretty by any stretch of the imagination.

This other "camp" happens to bring students from around the province I'm from who apparently are the top students of the top schools. I felt so out of place because I wasn't a top student at all in high school and had no interest whatsoever in politics compared to these other kids. We were a sufficiently diverse group with young ladies and young men getting together, all idealistic, and all optimistic to understand this beast that is local government.

Sometime during the camp we were told that at the end, there would be some sort of election. We were broken up into parties, and given the task of coming up with speeches and a political platform to simulate the garnering of votes and convincing people. The awkward thing with this process is that it required those who wanted to be governor, vice governor, board members, and heads of departments to register their intent. There would be a campaign period and there would be public speaking involved to let others know your intentions. It quickly went downhill from there.

After much cajoling and me being the joker in most of the groups I'm part of, I say sure, I'll register to be a board member. Through some stroke of luck, I made quite a few people laugh with my speech and that's how I got to be a junior board member. At that point I thought it was a good experience to take in anyway, so I went along with it and it became one of the most important experiences I've had in my life.

After this part of the camp, there was a weekend of all the junior officials where we got one of the most important lessons in leadership: knowing yourself. For a young man just trying to grasp what's going on around me and trying to figure out what to do for the rest of my life, finding out who I am inside was a very powerful experience. It wasn't a cliche of "getting in touch with your emotions" but rather a disrobing of the emperor and finally acknowledging that I am human, I have fears, I have doubts, I have desires, and I have purpose. That one powerful session where a theater director was guiding everyone through the emotions we experience after being walked through (verbally) certain situations -- placing ourselves in the shoes (so to speak) of the characters in the story, identifying the emotions, and our thoughts -- as well as having us talk to ourselves that we're seeing through a mirror (in our heads), and addressing our fears, visualizing our insecurities, and verbalizing our thoughts.

It was a kind of "coming of age" for me -- which may have come a little early. It's like after this experience, I felt that I knew who I was and finally I could be at peace with myself. Being a young man, clueless, and confused (and to be honest a little lost) being able to look inwardly and learn about yourself in a way that's unique and self-directed was very important for me. To this day I have vivid memories of this experience and I am so thankful to my elders running the workshop that day.

Debating Team Leadership

So after these two leadership experiences, I thought to myself maybe I could do this leadership thing. I remember being really interested in logic and intellectual discourse even at this early stage in my life. I was fascinated by the earlier philosophers -- and that people back in the day actually had spent time and effort thinking about how people think. This "meta" exercise of inspecting the thought process was a very intriguing proposition for me. I knew I had very little experience with it, but I knew it was something I liked doing.

We didn't have a formal logic class in high school (much to my dismay, after talking with people who did have formal training in logic in their early years). I didn't know all the fallacies, nor did I know any of the strategies. What I did have was courage to dare to argue, comfort in public speaking, and again that sense of humor about things. When some of our teachers asked for people interested to join the debating team to compete with other high schools in the country, I gamely signed up for it. Soon after the team was formed I don't remember if I was chosen to be captain or I volunteered, but I certainly didn't mind and thought it was a good opportunity for me to learn more about both logic and indeed leadership.

The team didn't get past the second round at no fault of the team but all fault to mine. In the closing arguments for that round I had made a fatal logical error -- in my attempt at humor, it backfired and sounds like I was doing an ad hominem argument. I found that leadership meant responsibility and that day I let my team down. We had done so well in arguing our position and in the end it was my mistake that cost us the win. This experience taught me that the position of leadership carries with it both a privilege and a responsibility -- this which I carry to this day.

It's true I think what people say about experience being the best teacher -- until you dare to be wrong, you won't really learn what is right.

So, Ohio

Enough backing up -- by this point of my young life I had been afforded many opportunities for learning about leadership. I mentioned that this post is about how I turned down the opportunity to spend a year studying in Ohio and how it was a good thing.

In the leadership camp run by the Rotary Club in 1998, I met a group of young men and women who were both eager and driven to qualify for the exchange student program. There were something like 50 (I forget how many we actually were) kids in the three-day camp that involved putting us all in groups, working together in different situations, learning about teamwork and leadership in the many different ways, as well as being observed to determine leadership potential and actual leaders in the group. It was a fun event, I met a great bunch of kids, but it was meant to be a leadership exposure event and that it actually did pretty well.

There was one day where we hiked to the peak of a local hill -- it wasn't technically a mountain, but it took a good two hours to get up there. It wasn't a particularly dangerous hike but us being kids meant we weren't exactly the fittest and most prepared group of people to be doing a hike up a small mountain. It was both a bonding experience but apparently it was also the final "test" in determining the leadership awardee at the end of the camp.

So yes, apparently there were going to be awards given to people who displayed different kinds of leadership. There was a particular award -- the leadership award -- that was given to the person who displayed the most qualities deemed to be positive to have for leaders. I among with the other kids in camp were totally unaware that there was going to be this awarding ceremony at the end of the day when everyone came back to camp after this hike.

Apparently that hike was supposed to be the culmination of all the workshops and leadership training sessions in the past couple of days. I remember hanging back during the hike to help out kids that were having trouble walking up the hill, giving encouragement to those having a hard time, and being the clown that I was (and am admittedly still to this day) kept spirits high under the crazy heat and humidity. I was giving people water, asking the people up front to take a breather for a bit given some of us were having trouble with the pace, and in general being a good member of the team. I wasn't told to do this, but I just felt like it was the right thing to do.

That wasn't all. Coming back down the hill was something else entirely. After enjoying the view at the top and having a half-hour or so break, everyone wasn't in the highest of spirits. Some people really had trouble with the hike (kids being out of shape, some of whom were really unprepared for this physical event, including myself). I could have easily raced down the trail to get to the base of the mountain as fast as I could (which some kids actually did) but I felt like it would be a little unfair to my peers who were really having a hard time as well. I felt like someone had to hang back still to help out with guiding the tail of the pack down the trail. I wasn't told to do this, but I just felt like it was the right thing to do.

We get back to camp and low and behold my parents are there! I was so happy to see my mom and dad there, but wondered why there were staying on instead of whisking me out of there back home. Then the awarding ceremony started, and they told us that we were all qualified for the exchange student program, and that they were going to give some leadership awards -- there were three. The first one they gave is to the most promising leader (who wasn't me). The second one was to the life of the party (who wasn't me). The third one they gave out was the leadership award which, to my surprise, was given to me. Yes, I was awarded a leadership award when I wasn't trying to win one.


So what does this leadership award have to do with my not choosing to go spend a year in Ohio? It's a really simple decision for me if you've noticed with all this leadership talk following this conclusion. Let me break it down in simple bullet points (to make it more apparent it was the right thing to do for me):

  • I had opportunities to travel and the means to make it happen -- I didn't need to get a free ride to do this. There were a lot more kids who would benefit more from this opportunity to go to Ohio and study amidst a completely different culture. I gave up my slot to someone else who really wanted it and otherwise couldn't afford to go there. Someone else would have appreciated this opportunity much more than I would have at the time. I'm sure it did actually give someone an epic experience and I'm happy I was able to say no.
  • I was going to miss a year of school, and I had friends who were going to graduate ahead of me -- it wasn't a good value proposition for me from a logical point of view. Sure I missed out on a year experience in Ohio, but I would have also missed an epic senior year of High School where I experienced love, life, and formed bonds that would last the rest of my life. I didn't want to give that up for the chance to study in the US for one year. I formed really good friendships during that time of my life, those I cherish up to this day, and I couldn't have had that opportunity had I given a year to study in Ohio.
  • If I learned anything about leadership, it's about doing the right thing when nobody else is looking. Even though I earned it, I felt like the right thing to do was to give it to someone else who would benefit more from it. It's not out of modesty or some other twisted sense of humility, but the opportunity was a form of scholarship -- one I did not need as my parents were completely capable of letting me go to Australia, provide me with a lot of opportunities to do self-directed learning, and provide an eduction for me out of their own pockets. This should have gone to a kid who was doing great in school, has a lot of potential for leadership, and didn't have the means to go experience school in the US.
  • I knew myself, my fears, my doubts, and my short-comings. I wasn't afraid to go to the US and study there for one year -- I was afraid that if I did so, I would rather stay there and have had a completely different life. Some might think that may have been a good thing, but judging from what I would have missed out on in the years following this one in particular (and the education I got in the reality of life) it may have been a bad deal.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had gone. I may have met people I wouldn't otherwise meet. I could have formed friendships that I would also cherish for the rest of my life. Maybe I would have moved to the US instead early in my life and would be living a different life now.

Then again I look at my life now and I wouldn't trade it for anything. I met my wife in the Philippines and we had our daughter there. I got to spend a lot of time with my family, learned to live on my own, experience some sort of poverty, and clawed my way out and made me a hungrier and more driven person. Now I'm in Sydney, here in Australia and there's nowhere else in the world I would want to be. I've made friendships in the Philippines that even though I am not in their midst I still hold them dearly in my hearts.

I believe that in life the choices we make to do certain things are as important as the ones we make to not do certain things. Not all opportunities are made the same. Not all risks are worth taking. Not all rewards are weighed the same.

Thankfully, I'm living the life I myself want to live and leading the life I want to lead.


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