This week, I was asked by some of the alumni organizers to write an article/message for the Cornell University Centennial Program. They asked me to share how my undergraduate years in the University shaped me in the work that I do.
Cornell University is an Ivy League School located in Ithaca, New York State. It is a little over 200 miles Northwest of Manhattan or about 160 miles southeast of Niagra Falls at the Canadian border.
I am not used to talking about myself but this article enabled me to look back in my college life to see how it has affected me. If you are graduating from college, I hope you can pick up something from this sharing.
How Cornell has Shaped me in what I do
I graduated from Cornell in 1991 with a Bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Economics and a major in Business Management and Marketing. I was an entrepreneur for a while but my career shifted to governance and social development. I have been working with local government officials to improve basic service delivery since 2004. I have deepened my commitment since then and have taken up my Master’s degree in Public Management at the Ateneo School of Government.
I coasted in high school but did well. I scored reasonably high in my aptitude tests which got me in to Cornell University. During freshman year, I thought Cornell would be as easy. Before I entered Cornell, I was in the top 10% of my class at Suffield Academy in Connecticut. By the end of freshman year, I was in the bottom 10% of the curve. I almost flunked out of Cornell. I had to take a semester leave to reconsider my enrollment. During that time, I realized that being smart will not get me by. I had to work hard. I did just that when I got back to Ithaca and graduated from Cornell on time.
From that Cornell experience, I inherited my thirst for excellence. “Buhos at lubos” in tagalog and loosely translated ‘to dedicate yourself and find the best about yourself in any engagement.’
I started my development career volunteering in organizations like Gawad Kalinga to help the poor in the country. As I became aware of the dynamics of poverty, I found out that I had to invest myself in this endeavor to make a difference. As I delve into this, I found that improving local services delivery are musts in fighting poverty. I saw that we need to create an enabling environment for the family to cope with their own life needs. And this starts with improving Public Health and Basic Education in a municipality. These are the essentials for a leader to pursue to exercise good governance. I found that a community can nurture development thru leaders who are striving towards this. From here, I found myself engaging leaders in helping them develop and enhance their basic service programs to create community participation.
Since then, I have worked with Good Governance champions like Mayor Sonia Lorenzo. While working with her in San Isidro, we are able to improve public health in the community. We achieved 95% national health insurance coverage of the population. We were able to improve the Health Center of the town and make it a profit center that increased the revenues of the local government. As we campaigned to prioritize health, we found the income of the family also improved. In a survey done in the town, we saw that there were many families who would borrow money with high interest rates to avail of much needed hospital services. Farmers would even pawn farm equipment when family members are struck with catastrophic illnesses. In this initiative, we found that if local leaders improve the public health system and once they exercise leadership in urging the community to follow and participate, progress becomes inevitable. I learned that the people are vital to a robust development program.
As I engaged other leaders and learned form other local government institutions. I found that the highly successful leaders are those that delve into people empowerment.
At some point, I saw that in order to spur and nurture change; in order for people to participate, we needed to go beyond service delivery. We needed to create venues of transformative learning in the initiatives we establish. This is in order for the community to learn - to understand their own strengths in addressing their own needs and that of the community. The venues are areas where people are able to understand their role and affirm their participation in the changing story of the town.
In District 3, Quezon City for example, we worked with Merck, Inc. and Congressman Bolet Banal to address maternal mortality in the area. Initially, we had so much resistance from the local leaders because of politics. Even some of the city health workers looked at us with distrust. In a little over a year, and based on the survey of 2 barangays, we were able to increase in-facility birthing from 20% to 87%. We are still trying to confirm the staggering figures at this time, but the change have been apparent. From interviews, we have mothers testifying about better pre-natal checkups and higher health seeking behavior.
From these experiences, I found that change is possible but they need to come in small consistent parcels so people can cope. The venues of learning need to be consistently nurtured in order to slowly usher the behavior we wish to accomplish.
Finally, I found that empowered people seem to develop their own engine to sustain their passion. They find ways to draw excellence from themselves to address issues and problems. They do not wait for change to arrive but instead they become agents of it.
I was invited to lecture on politics and development once in the Ateneo Political Science department. The students were dreaming to be future leaders but most of them are afraid to go into development work because of the pay. When I left, Anne Candelaria, their professor and my friend who invited me told me that during their discussion end evaluation, they were simply awed and inspired by the fact that I graduated from an Ivy League school. One of them said, "I respect Jess because he changed his entire being from riches to rags, to help the community and do what he loves to do. I am jealous because honestly I do not know what I am doing right now in my life."
This was not the first time I was asked about the career I have chosen. One time, I had an intern that had a dream of going to an Ivy League School. He saw my Cornell diploma on the wall. I was dismissive of my Cornell degree hoping that he would focus on the problems in the community until he said, “Why did you waste your diploma working with mayors and going to rural areas?”
I said, “Having that diploma seem to tell people that I know much. But doing what I do now tells people that I follow what I know.”
If there is a message I wish to leave young Cornellians it is captured in a video by Dewitt Jones. Maybe you can take time to watch it. It is called “Celebrating What is Right in the World.”
He asks , What is the difference between success and significance? It is in knowing myself and seeing my role in this world. “To go from being the best in the world to being the best for the world.”
Best wishes to my fellow Cornellians.
Comments are welcome at [email protected] or private message through Facebook. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter @jesslorenzo for stories of good governance.
Jess Lorenzo is currently the program director of Kaya Natin! Movement for Good Governance and Ethical Leadership's public health initiatives. www.kayanatin.org @kayanatin on Twitter
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