An alumna of the Assumption College, Margaria “Mara” Borromeo Diego (AC HS ’15), recently did her alma mater proud by graduating with Magna Cum Laude honors from the Notre Dame University in Indiana, United States. Of course, the proudest Old Girl, as Assumption alumnae are called, is Mara’s mother, Marissa Borromeo (AC Coll ’70).
Marra, who majored in Economics and minored in “Education, Society and Schooling,” was the first Filipino recipient of the Herburgh-Yusko scholarship grant. The co-chair of the International Student Advisory Board, she also received the Lawrence J Lewis Award for Community Service. She belongs to the Omicron Delta Epsilon Honors Society. For her first job, she signed up as a Management Fellow with the Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA), a private healthcare network where “I hope to enhance the critical thinking skills I’ve learned in school and help develop solutions to close the gaps in healthcare delivery.”
Mara share with us her thoughts on her Assumption education, Filipino cultural background and her well-rounded international education.
Daily Tribune (DT): What values did you acquire in Assumption that turned out to be useful in meeting the challenges of your college life and studies?
Margarita Borromeo Diego (MBD): When I think back to my fourteen years in Assumption, phrases of Catholic Social Teaching, Fidelity to Duty, and Servant Leadership always come to mind. I’ve associated these ideals with values of disciplined faith, humility, and respect that have served me well in my four years of college.
Pursuing my “American Dream” meant dealing with moments of isolation, as social and academic pressures to conform to a certain lifestyle sometimes stood opposed to the values I held close to my heart. Even within a Catholic university, such temptations existed, but I owe my steadfast resolve to my faith-based values to my formation in Assumption and from my parents. Both readied me to consciously practice a complete surrender to God’s plan.
As I reflect on my college career, I am filled with gratitude to see how God had played such an active role in my everyday life, intricately weaving together so many of my early experiences and chance meetings to make this beautiful culmination possible.
DT: Humility is, of course, essential in every undertaking if you want to succeed. But how humble can one get and not lose one’s self-respect and, most importantly, not lose one’s personality? How did your Assumption education contribute to your practice of humility?
The humility that an Assumption education tries to impress on its students has also served me well during my time abroad. Challenges both in Notre Dame and while studying abroad at the University in Oxford included working with people who made you question your ability to match expectations. While this was not true of all my professors, there were certainly those who made me question whether my acceptance into these institutions was truly merited. I recall one saying to me that he didn’t think I could perform to the expectations of my scholarship program which was a significant blow to the little confidence I had coming in; however, what kept me going was the wisdom in turning the other cheek and being the bigger person. One of my favorite quotes goes, “Work hard in silence. Let your success make the noise.” My dad similarly reinforced this, raising me with the mindset that there is always room for improvement. Rather than allow this professor’s words to compromise my character, I took his comments to heart and used it to further motivate my growth in Notre Dame. It was humbling to listen in silence and hold my tongue, but all the more rewarding when, upon hearing the news of my acceptance into the Oxford programme, he came up to me and said, “I saw the news and told my other colleagues, ‘she was my student!’”
Throughout all of various trying experiences such as this, I think that the respect that I have learned from practices as simple as carefully wrapping our textbooks with plastic covers before each new school year, standing to greet your teachers and addressing as “Mister” or “Miss,” and raising our hands to speak in class have distinguished me from the average American student. This teaching has ingrained in me a deep respect for learning and for my relationships that invigorate my pursuit of growing my understanding of the world I am living in. It is this respect that one is ingrained with in an Assumption education.
DT: What was the first challenge that you had to hurdle in your pursuit of a college education?
MBD: The decision to even leave the Philippines and pursue my undergraduate education in Notre Dame was, in itself, a leap of faith. This was the first big move I had ever had to make, and I was going off to a completely foreign state where I had no family close-by. And this did pose as a significant challenge in the start, as I had to face the challenges of adapting to a very different culture from what we are used to in the very Catholic and family-oriented Philippine community.
DT: What was the difficult part about studying in a different country and how did you cope with it?
MBD: Whenever I’m asked this, I always think back to my first history seminar in Notre Dame. We were asked to read a book prior to our first meeting, and I proudly walked in excited to meet my classmates with my copy that had been heavily annotated and decorated with post-it notes. I had been used to being a “good student” back in Assumption, and this was one of the ways I was trained to read and could signal my preparation for class. To my surprise, I found that no one else had read the book recently; many of my American classmates did not bother to do the assignment having read this title at some point in high school. This quickly revealed how different the curricula that I had been exposed to was, which I also found to be true for my other “introductory” math and sciences classes in Notre Dame. The professor then called my name, and I jumped ready to answer his question about any granular detail of the book, even something as seemingly unimportant as the colour and number of flights of the staircase described in page 67. Again, I was caught off-guard when, instead, asked, “What did you think of the reading?” I was speechless.
So I adjusted. For all the classes I had initial difficulty with, specifically calculus and my writing-intensive courses, I spent my few remaining free hours after class to go to tutoring sessions and office hours for extra help. I will never forget my running to and from one professor’s office to another or essentially sleeping in the mathematics library trying to understand the calculus I had never encountered before. Freshman year in Notre Dame was, by far, one of the most trying adjustments of my life, though one I look back at with great pride and a sense of accomplishment for all the hard work I put in.
And just when I thought I had it, I packed my bags and left Notre Dame to attend the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Oxford was a world in itself with its own unique culture and vernacular. I learned the hard way that calling a teacher “professor” could actually be an insult to someone who had not yet earned that title and that “collections” and “papers” both referred to the exams that students took at the beginning of each trimester or end of the year. It was a headache at the start, as there were no formal classes or settings for instructors to feed students the information they needed to know as in the Philippines and the U.S.. In Oxford, you had the responsibility of teaching yourself, and there was an even greater sense of accomplishment one felt after completing each module and demonstrating mastery of the material in a weekly 4000 word essay and debate with his/her tutor (in the American context, this would be one’s professor). I had never before been given the complete trust and challenge to direct my own learning to this degree. I miss the smell of the century old books housed in the Bodleian Library permanently impressed on my memory after spending days on end reading. But, maybe more so, I miss the wisdom of history and experience that I learned from a very intimidating “tutor” who made my heart race and armpits sweat before every meeting we had. He said to me one day, frustrated by my fixation on grades, “Why do you care so much about grades? I just want you to care about learning!”
How has acquiring knowledge in three educational institutions in three different countries affected you?
I feel incredibly grateful to have had the unparalleled education opportunities studying in Assumption, Notre Dame, and in Oxford. I don’t think people realize just how different schools can be, but my first hand experiences as a student in the Philippines, the United States, and the United Kingdom have changed my understanding of what it means to be a scholar and the value of an education. I’ve had to learn to adjust quickly, both academically and socially, to these unique learning environments. Generally speaking, education in Asia strikes me to be more focused on rote learning, that is, memorisation and repetition. Where I have studied in the United States, critical analysis and application. And, lastly, in the United Kingdom, disciplined, self-directed learning. It was no easy task having to reorient my brain time and time again, and it was surely something I struggled with as I began each new academic year.
DT: How did you manage to get very high grades in your university? In what way did your cultural background contribute to your achievement as a magna cum laude?
MBD: Two very Filipino characteristics, resilience and resourcefulness, immediately come to mind.
I think this resilience of Filipinos, bending with the wind and weathering all storms, has been manifested time and time again and has certainly helped me to remain persistent in my studies. The Filipino’s resourcefulness was also critical to all my achievements while in Notre Dame.
I forget the specific story, but I recall learning about Filipino fables and folklores early on in grade school and reading stories that likened us to bamboo. I think this resilience of Filipinos, bending with the wind and weathering all storms, has been manifested time and time again and has certainly helped me to remain persistent in my studies. It would have been very easy, for example, for me to just decide that Calculus and I were not meant to be friends and make sure I just barely passed this requirement; however, there was an indomitable spirit in me that refused to give up so easily. I refused to let this stumbling block get in my way of success and so treated each failure as another opportunity for personal growth; as an invitation to muster the courage and persistence to begin again. To this day, I’m amazed at how I managed to finish off my Calculus requirements with an A! But I owe it to my uniquely Filipino resiliency (and the many chocolate chip cookies at 2 AM that kept my energy to study high!)
DT: Can one study independently and achieve academic success?
As I’ve responded to the many congratulatory messages that have been coming in the past few days, I do not deserve the praise. Rather, it is my professors, supervisors, subject librarians, dear friends and colleagues, and parents, who deserve the recognition. It is only because of them and their limitless support and assistance that I have soared to great heights. I think this also shows the great humility Filipinos tend to exhibit as well, since asking for help does require that we recognise our own limitations. My heart is still filled with so much gratitude remembering how generous my close professors were in helping me complete my thesis… I learned a lot by getting connected to their many close friends and field experts who so willingly volunteered their time to help in any way they could as well. And to think, all it took was the initiative to seek these resources out and take advantage of what was available. Generally speaking, I think it’s fair to claim that many Filipinos are certainly good at doing that! DT: What are your immediate career plans?
MBD: I plan to stay with CTCA for the next three years before going back to school to pursue a graduate degree. My previous service experiences with the Maryknoll Missionaries in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and the Likhaan Center for Women’s Health in Tondo, Manila have led me to discover my passion for healthcare and education, which I strongly believe work hand-in-hand. I hope to complement my healthcare work experience with a Master’s in Education Administration, so that I can, one day, be of service in both the Philippines’ Department of Health and Department of Education.
DT: Why did you choose to work in the United States first?
MBD: Like making the decision to pursue my education abroad, I have chosen to begin my career here in the U.S. so that I may return home to the Philippines and bring back the best practices that I have observed and will have practiced in this advanced economy. What is important to keep in mind, however, and what I see being an exciting challenge for me moving forward is designing a concrete and creative plan to replicate these solutions in a cost-efficient manner.
DT: How do you intend to do your part in addressing the health issues of Filipinos back home, including those brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic?
MBD: Even beyond cancer care and with the current COVID-19 pandemic, one cannot argue that our country is far more constrained in its ability to put up the necessary medical and testing facilities that our people so desperately need. But, for every problem, there is a solution. One that I hope to be a part of in the future.
DT: If you were asked your ten cents’ worth, what would your recommend as a priority in addressing the health and medical needs of the Filipino people?
MBD: To ensure that the Filipino people are able to lead flourishing lives, now and in the future, it is imperative that all have access to quality opportunities to maintain healthy bodies and minds. For this reason, our health and education centers should be among our government’s top priorities. It has long been my dream to make an impact in the lives of my fellow Filipinos in this way and do everything in my power to obtain for them similar opportunities I have been so blessed to have.