On May 12, 2001, I got a letter from Echoing Green Foundation of New York City informing me that I was chosen as one of 20 finalists over 1,788 applicants from 63 countries. I was the only Asian. I could not believe it but I have been in unbelievable situations before (eg. Passing a European Union scholarship to Belgium and Ireland), yet it took some time before it sank in.
Passing as an Echoing Green Fellow carried a $90,000 prize, a post-graduate scholarship and funding for my non-profit Pine Tree, the Cordillera Ecological Center for four years.
Echoing Green flew me to New York City, my first time in the US, put me in a first class room at the 30th floor of Holiday Inn and instructed me to relax and meditate for the big day—the Finals interview. Only ten winners would be chosen out of the 20 finalists.
Of the 20 of us, 14 were Americans, one Yugoslavian, one British, and two South Americans. The credentials of my co-applicants were exceptionally excellent.
My Holiday Inn room was so big and comfortable, fit for a king, I could not sleep—I felt the jitters, I was nervous and could not still believe it. Here I am, a mere rural and environmental worker carrying the weight of the Philippines on my shoulder. Ten months back when I applied, I ran every day in the highway and nearby university praying “Lord, let me win, let me do the impossible, let me win”.
The following day, May 13, the day of the Finals Interview, Echoing Green officials fetched me from Holiday Inn at 9 am. I was brought to the Echoing Green Headquarters then (before 911) at Madison Avenue near Manhattan. For the first time I saw the other 19 finalists. Few, if none at all talked, but there was a brief exchange of pleasantries.
We were all nervous.
We were all interviewed individually by a 7-person panel inside the Echoing Green Conference Room. The panel was made up of the Executive Director of Echoing Green, two senior professors from Harvard University on development studies, a Princeton University Dean on science and technology, a Georgetown University professor on economics and two directors from two of USA’s prestigious NGOs.
When it was my turn to be interviewed, I looked at the brilliant figures in front of me, aware of who they are, I felt so small facing them.. even more bewildered to face such luminaries. Given 10 minutes to compose myself, I could not figure out what questions will be thrown my way.
Then the questioning began. I stammered in the beginning of my first response, but went on, I could not hear my own voice but was aware I was talking. I gave them what was on my mind. My experiences in working in other countries being/working with local peoples and teaching in the Graduate School came to my rescue, on questions clearly hypothetical and oxymoronic.
I became aware the interview was over when one panelist said, “Thank you Michael, I guess we have nothing more to ask.” I was glad it was over. It was the toughest 30 minute interview in my life.
After an hour, they called each of us 20 finalists, individually, to announce whether we failed or passed. I stood before the panel and the chair Dr. Sarah Jones announced: “Michael, we are happy to tell you that you passed not only the interview but also topped all interviewees……”.
I could not hear the rest of her words… I was shocked, felt suddenly weak, wanting to sit down, which I did….the months of stress, apprehension and anxiety flowing out of my frail body….
I could hear myself crying “Thank you Lord”, over and over again.
And so I became the first Filipino Echoing Green Awardee.