From an early age, Clara Aseniero had always been able to situate herself and her experiences on a broader scope than most Filipinos physically or socially confined to life within the country. After studying at a British international school and moving to London for her college and postgrad years, she acknowledges that these international ventures have given her a wider perspective and enhanced her self-reflexivity.
“I just got to New York, and I have been busy settling in and trying not to fall asleep at odd hours,” she shares. She’s made another big move, this time to take her Masters in World and International History at her dream school, Columbia University. As she takes on this new adventure, she’s blazing a trail for herself and many others in similar situations.
Though away from home, Clara’s heart has always belonged to the Philippines. While she loved the experience of living in a different country, having access to world-class museums and libraries, and the general air of independence, she knew immediately after graduating college that she wanted to go back home.
But coming home was no easy feat. She shares, “My biggest struggle was probably moving back to the Philippines from London. My parents had settled in the province, so I was living there for a year and a half and it was by no means a bad experience, but it was definitely a struggle to stay productive and look for opportunities in a quiet town of a rural province.”
The struggle was worth it, however; as Clara was able to initiate a social housing process in her hometown, which she hopes will set the precedent for a safer and more functional standard of living for informal settlers.
It’s a much-needed solution in the Philippines today, as there is a backlog of 5.7 million housing units in the country. It’s a fundamental problem of urbanization. People move to where the jobs are. And when urban areas become too dense, housing supply can’t keep up.
Despite the potential for more housing projects in rural areas, off-city housing has been problematic since people want to move away in the first place. Many informal settlers who have been offered relocation to off-city homes either refuse to relocate or simply return to big urban cities anyway.
The HUDCC states that the best way to combat this is by transforming secondary cities into places of growth and development. Clara shares this sentiment, calling for emphasis on, “developing urban centres throughout the archipelago so that not everything is concentrated in Manila.”
Clara is very outspoken about her advocacy for contributing to the country. She has an understanding of the country and its habits that comes from a holistic, experiential perspective – not surprising for someone who’s been both in and out of the country and constantly learning new things about her homeland.
“Most people would consider the Philippines to be a democracy, but for me that’s a point of contention,” Clara admits. “I think it exists in so much as we have an electoral process, but we definitely don’t have a system of participatory politics, which is crucial for real democracy and would make our elections [fairer]. We don’t really have political parties where each one stands on a certain ideological platform with clearly outlined social and economic agendas, so as voters we inevitably fall back on judging by the person, rather than by the platform, and that’s problematic.”
She states that parties should function as more than just political and financial machineries for politicians; they should also involve the electorate in the formation of their ideas – that way, the public would have a greater say on how politicians represent them.
She wants many things for the Philippines, and would love to see the country develop to the level of its neighbors. She says, “[I would] emphasise the need to solve the traffic problem, which I think has a lot to do with developing urban centres throughout the archipelago so that not everything is concentrated in Manila. I would also talk about standardising higher education in the country, so that young people leave with the right qualifications to pursue whatever job they may want, especially if they go abroad, and not have to settle for anything less because their qualifications are not recognised. It’s a massive brain waste problem that we need to address along with the brain drain issue – that is, young professionals leaving the country for jobs they are overqualified for.”
With as many ups and downs as she’s had, Clara’s learned more than a few valuable lessons. The most important ones come from her best and worst experiences, and have really shaped who she is today. Generously imparting these lessons to young Filipinos everywhere, she says, “Don’t try to please everyone. I think Filipino kids are pretty obedient children, which is great because they have respect for their parents, but you can’t always align your own interests with those of your family, and that shouldn’t limit your possibilities. [Also,] take the time to think about what is important to you so that you end up doing something that gives you true fulfilment. [Finally,] embrace change. As unsettling as it can be, being in a new environment, meeting new people, or even just having that experience of being alone, can teach you so much about yourself, and you will definitely come out of it a better and stronger version of yourself.”
Clara’s looking forward to sunny tomorrows – for the next two years she’ll be hard at work achieving her Master’s degree, and dedicating her free time to developing her social housing project. She’s facing a future full of hope, opportunity and progress – and Clara’s grateful for every minute of it.
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