10/14/2009 - AFS Returnees Reminisce in the Philippines
By CRISPINA MARTINEZ-BELEN
for The Manila Bulletin
What do Tony Gloria, Ronnie Henares, Arnel de Pano and Leo Valdez have in common? Well, they were all AFS (American Field Service) exchange students. And recently, together with other AFS scholars (MOD editor Cynthia U. Santiago for one) and officers of AFS Intercultural Programs Philippines, they had a happy get-together recently at Chili’s in Morato, Quezon City.
They reminisced their experiences as AFS scholars with their foster families in the US. They recalled how being AFS exchange students changed them in more ways than one. For instance, Leo Valdez who made an international name as The Engineer in the musical “Miss Saigon,” was very proud to say “AFS developed my personality. It taught me that there was more to life than eating and sleeping.”
Long before the phrase “climate change” had yet to be coined, Bonnie Bagis-Guerra, AFSIPP partner chair, recalled that Leo was already standing before fellow AFS scholars in Wisconsin and warning them about the damage pollution can bring to the environment. Few people know it, but Leo, then a teenager transplanted from a small town in Negros Occidental all the way to Port Washington, Wisconsin, was part of a debating team.
At 16, Leo knew he had to do well since he was carrying the Philippine flag in the US where he found himself amidst a virtual United Nations kind of set-up. There were Japanese, Americans, Italians and other nationalities, all the cream of the crop from their respective countries.
“I wanted to excel for the Philippines,” Leo recalled. And so he sang before thousands of people, and even impressed a Wisconsin gentleman who wanted to sponsor him at the Julliard School of Music, but Leo politely turned him down.
Leo learned, among others, how to deal with homesickness. His came in handy when he’s hop from one venue to another – the United Kingdom, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore – to reprise his much-acclaimed role as The Engineer.
Confidence, they all said, was another important thing they all learned from AFS. Leo learned how to mix with students from elite schools and converse with them, never mind if English is not his first language at home the way it is in theirs. “AFS provided me with the building blocks of character,” he added. More than intelligence, that’s what really matters.
Tony Gloria: AFS developed my confidence
Like Leo, Unitel and Optima CEO Tony Gloria said AFS developed his confidence. He was only 16 when he left the comfort of home in Naga City to study for a year in the US as AFS scholar. He was the first ever Filipino to study in White Plains, New York. That meant that he had no kababayan to turn to when he needed help or just needed someone to talk to.
So he had to reach out to Americans whom he played football with on weekends, and went around with in places like Chicago and Michigan, where a bus would take them for one-and-a-half months as part of their training.
“I developed self-confidence and independence,” he related.
People treated him well since they knew Tony went there as an exchange student who passed a battery of tests to qualify. The tests did not only measure intelligence; they also looked into his psychological capacity to make do on his own. “I learned things I would not have found out in books,” he said.
The experience, needless to say, is priceless, and now that he heads his own company, Tony looks back with fondness on those formative years with AFS. They helped him become what he is now. And he couldn’t be more grateful.
Ronnie Henares: AFS helps me deal with artists
On his part, noted talent manager Ronnie Henares looks at his experience as AFS scholar (Batch ’68) as a blessing. Because it prepared him to deal with artists when he got into the competitive world of talent management. The former manager of Regine Velasquez and Lani Misalucha said he learned a lot of things from the program which came in handy when he began managing the careers of artists.
He related: “I learned to take each person for what he or she is.” Artists, with their varied moods and temperaments, are fine examples of how different people can be. But thanks to his AFS experience of adjusting to various personalities, Ronnie said he was able to take the good with the bad in dealing with the artists he manages.
“No artist is perfect,” he added. “I’ve learned to live with that and adjust accordingly.” Staying with his loving Vanderhof foster family also taught Ronnie all about unconditional love. Again, translated into artist management, Ronnie said this means treating artists like his own children “whom you must let go if you must. Things may just turn ugly if you fight to keep them.”
Thus, he let Regine – the girl he discovered when she was still the unknown Chona in Bulacan – and Lani go, when they wanted to. It pained him to do so, he said. But it was for the best. Regine is now on top of her career while Lani is making a name not just for herself but for the Philippines as well in Las Vegas.
This optimism that things will turn out right even if they don’t seem to be at first is something Ronnie learned, again, from AFS. He encountered people who made life hard for him while he was an AFS scholar. But he learned to soldier on, learning that even bad things will come to pass if only he remains patient.
Thus, Ronnie stands strong today, even against nasty intrigues showbiz has plenty of. “I have yet to meet an AFS scholar who doesn’t have an outstanding personality,” he mused. “Confidence, outspokenness and dignity are the trademarks of an AFS scholar.”
He should know. He’s one himself.
About the program
Bonnie Bagis-Guerra and Beth Venzon-Eduave, AFS Volunteer Development Manager and who were themselves AFS alumni, stressed that AFS is an international, voluntary, non-profit, non-governmental organization that provides intercultural learning opportunities to help people develop the knowledge, skills and understanding needed to create a more just and peaceful world.
AFS Intercultural Programs Philippines is part of the global network of AFS worldwide. Founded 62 years ago, it has been leading the world of student exchanges. Every year, over 13,000 students are sent all over the world and an equal number of families host the students. AFS Programs are school and community-based programs where a participant spends a year of cultural immersion within these environments. In the Philippines more than 2,000 Filipino youth have participated in the various programs of AFS and over 600 foreign students have been hosted. There are 53 partners in the global AFS Network and 80 destinations around the world.
They are supported by about 30,000 volunteers, they said.
The vision for 2012, they added, is for AFS Intercultural Program Philippines to be “a leader in intercultural exchange in the Philippines and a partner of choice in the global AFS Network.”
Journey of Friendship
On Oct. 27, AFSIPP will host “A Journey of Friendship” dinner for the visiting AFS International President Tachi Cazal and various chairs and partner directors from the global partner network at the Manila Polo Club. All AFS alumni are invited to attend.
For details, the AFS alumni may visit the AFSIPP office at UP ISSI Bldg. UP Campus, Diliman, QC or they may also check out www.afs.ph.
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