A Filipina Teacher in America: A Journey of Faith

 by Aida L. Serna

(Excerpts from the story published in the book Crumbs from the Melting Pot

compiled by …Jose C. Sorra, D.D.)

I came to America in 2001 with my husband and youngest daughter in search of greener pastures. The opportunity to move there came to us on a silver platter so to speak. My husband’s parents who live in the U.S. generously shouldered our plane tickets and other travel expenses. Armed with years of teaching experience, culinary expertise, the propensity for hard work, and most of all, an abiding faith in the good Lord who has blessed all my endeavors, I looked forward to Uncle Sam’s warm welcome.

New Home, New Life

Our first month in Baltimore, Maryland was difficult. My family and I experienced what most immigrants faced in a strange place with strange people – understanding the American accent and colloquial terms, the biting cold weather, western food, and the typical American lifestyle. There were evenings when I would huddle with my husband and daughter, drowning our solitude in tears and laughter while musing over our situation. My determination to pursue The American Dream wavered. But a great consolation was the fact that thousands of Filipinos brave the ordeal of Visa application in their desire to settle down in the “land of plenty”. Then my daughter told us, “Mama, I want to pursue a music degree here.” This meant that my husband and I would have to work in order to support our child through college. After a few days of praying and thinking, we decided to stay and fulfill our child’s wish.

The three of us were able to find jobs – I worked as a cashier, my daughter worked as a sales associate in a big merchandising company, and my husband also worked as a sales associate in another company. But what I desired was a teaching job in a Catholic school. I sent application letters to five Catholic institutions while holding on to my cashiering job. After weeks of prayer and anticipation for any response to my application letters, I received a phone call from the principal of Mt. De Sales Academy, a Catholic high school for girls run by Dominican Sisters. As she advised me to come for an interview the following day, joy, anxiety and fear altogether consumed me.


The Blessing of a Dream Job

Initially, I applied for the position of Spanish teacher and I was interviewed by the head of the Foreign Languages Department. Sadly, the 30 units of Spanish I had taken and one year of teaching it in college in the Philippines were not enough to land me the job. I felt awful. The kind principal who waited for me gently took me by the arm and said, “Come with me, Mrs. Serna, we might have something else for you.” All the while, she had considered my experience as an English and Religion teacher, my education from UST (University of Santo Tomas, a Domican university), and offered me a part-time teaching job. She warmly said, “Welcome to the Dominican family, Mrs. Serna!” I couldn’t believe that both rejection and acceptance happened to me in just an hour! And so began my journey of faith as a teacher in America.

Seeing their new foreign English teacher (me!), the students questioned me incessantly, asking where I came from and if I could actually speak English. I was at the end of my patience when I explained to them, “I came to America to send my youngest daughter to study music at Peabody. By all means, we can afford to send her there because my husband is a businessman in the Philippines. I teach here to keep myself busy. English? No problem. I can speak and write grammatically correct English.” After my repartee, my students were silent. I had broken the ice and was jubilant at the initial victory.

The days, weeks and months that followed brought opportunities for me and my students to learn more from each other, particularly about my country that is unknown to many. One class took a special interest in learning Filipino and it was heart-warming to hear them greet me, “Magandang umaga, Ginang Serna” (Good morning, Mrs. Serna), and after class, to say “Salamat po, paalam” (Thank you, goodbye) with the American twang.

The Challenges and Rewards of Being a Teacher

During summer break of 2002, I came home to the Philippines. I had earned a full-time teaching job at the school as Church History teacher so I brought home materials with me in order to prepare the course syllabus. I thought of including the subject “Devotion to the Rosary” and hoped that the principal would approve it since the Rosary was recited only during October.

When classes began in September, my students protested, not because they did not like the Rosary but because there were many mysteries and prayers that they needed to memorize. The syllabus was approved nevertheless with the help of the administration and parents. In support of the new course, I asked the students to make rosaries as their first project and by the first week of October, the chapel, classrooms and hallways were bedecked with huge, colorful rosaries made from different materials. Films about Marian stories and miracles, mostly in the Philippine setting, were shown. By the end of the school year, my students had mastered praying the Rosary. The parents appreciated the effort very much and were happy that their daughters would lead the family Rosary, something they had never done before.

One of the biggest challenges I faced as a teacher was dealing with cheaters. I had always emphasized the virtue of honesty to my students especially during exams and completion of course requirements and projects. One unforgettable incident was when a student, who was caught red-handed, dashed out of the room with the note, ran to the bathroom and flushed the paper in the toilet. I confronted the student and her parents about this and my resolute stand seemed to make me the villain. That incident nearly cost me my job.


On the other hand, one of the highlights of my job as a Religion teacher was when students came to me seeking counselling and prayers. Students came to me for advice about family and personal problems. I would usually end my sessions by inviting the student to pray with me in the chapel. In praying with my students, I had impressed upon them the value of prayer in their lives. Problems about boy-girl relationships, even sex, were very common among my young students. Being the only married teacher in the Religion department, I was privileged to talk about love, courtship, sex and marriage whenever the opportunity arose. I shared with these young, single women who were confused and perplexed by a permissive environment the value of chastity.

What I considered my career’s crowning glory was moderating the Culinary Arts Club. My purpose for this club was to enrich home and family life through home-cooked meals prepared by their own children and wean them away from fast food and instant meals. I was inspired by the many students who joined. I taught them my signature dish, lumpia (egg rolls), a sure hit with the American palate. Then I taught them other Filipino dishes like adobo (savory pork dish), pansit (noodles), arroz caldo (hot rice porridge) and sotanghon (noodle soup). I also incorporated other dishes such as dumplings and sushi, and a variety of salad dressings and dips. I also conducted baking lessons with the help of both parents and students who shared their skills in decorating cakes and cookies.

During the Lenten season, I hosted through the club the “Hunger Banquet” that benefitted an orphanage in the Philippines. This big event was a sort of Filipino night replete with entertainment like the tinikling (a Filipino folk dance), and where the only food served were arroz caldo and lumpia. For eight years, the event was successfully supported not only by the Mt. De Sales Academy but also by the Baltimore community. The guests generously gave more than the cost of the ticket to the event. Food and entertainment gave the Americans a glimpse of my homeland and its culture. Their generosity in turn reflected a sensitive heart for the needy which for years kept that Philippine connection alive.

Coming Home

After ten years of living in America and seeing my youngest daughter graduate from music school, work full time and make plans to settle down, I was faced to make yet another important decision. My husband and I, now in our mid-sixties, were enjoying the benefits of U.S. citizenship but home beckoned strongly, especially for him. As wives should be submissive to their husbands, I followed his heart’s desire.

It was not easy for me to leave Mt. De Sales Academy, my first “home” in America. I would miss the kind nuns, my best friend Mary, all my colleagues who had been part of my “growing up,” and the magnificent chapel with its silent but compelling call for daily Mass and prayer. I would miss most of all my students who helped me realize and refine those innate qualities that define the Filipino character: warmth, hospitability, religiousness, generosity, discipline and diligence.

It was faith that brought me to America. It was faith that liberated me from fear of ambiguities and conflicts of an unfamiliar culture. It was faith that empowered me to believe in my God-given gifts and capabilities. It was faith that prodded me to tread the treacherous waters of uncertainties in a strange land. And as I gaze at the glimmer of sunshine on the horizon, I hope to find a trace of my Eternal Guide who has been with me during my long journey. The only thing left for me to say is, “Thank you, Lord!”

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