Making ends meet at Georgetown University
In a wedding last January, I had the pleasure of sharing a table with Martin Reynoso, an alumnus of University of Michigan Ross School of Business Class of 2009. Martin heads a division in their family's construction business in Bicol. Well-off as he is, we shared stories about how Filipino students live considerably humble lives in the United States.
He talked about riding bicycles across the city loaded with grocery bags, and a diet consisting of ramen noodles and corned beef. Filipinos who have ventured the high seas to expand their academic breadth know this experience all too well. I had the same if not an even more humbling experience. I write this raising a glass to Filipino students everywhere.
The road to an American MBA started as a romantic one: In 2007, I completed the GMAT with a high percentile ranking and received a substantial scholarship from Georgetown's McDonough School of Business in Washington DC. All the hours spent studying and writing essays while balancing a full-time career paid off. I was not putting business school off for another year. This dream was not going to die.
All the preparations were completed a month before classes started. I secured funding. I found a roommate, Joseph Tieng, a Filipino-American from New Jersey, and an apartment in Arlington, VA. I packed my bags in August 2007 and said my good-byes. My girlfriend and I promised to do that long-distance thing. I hit the pause button on my comfortable Makati yuppie life. That pause button was really an off-switch to the good life I had taken for granted. The Filipino support network of family and friends is unmatched anywhere in the world.
The tough road ahead laid bare on my first night in Washington, DC. After I unpacked my balikbayan box and inflated my airbed, Joseph invited me to dinner at a local pub. I ordered the basics: a burger, $12, and a beer, $5. Joseph reminded me of the unsaid rule of giving at least a 15% tip! At least?! That's about P100! I only budgeted a meager amount for food and incidentals!
International finance and advanced statistics pale in comparison to the real challenge before me: how do I stretch the purchasing power of the Philippine peso? I did it with utmost creativity. I locked any regard for vanity in a box only to be opened after graduation. To Filipino students abroad, may you gain some insight, or at least get to laugh at how I made ends meet at Georgetown University.
Cut your own hair
A haircut in the US costs $14 plus another 15% tip. Yes, 5 times it would cost at mall prices in Manila. I let my hair grow for 3 months until I made the first wrong decision in my MBA life: I bought a $20 rechargeable electric razor. My unsharpened business acumen reasoned, "I would have ROI on this sucker after 2 haircuts," reassuring myself as I charged the razor and watched YouTube videos of "How to cut your hair." I failed to realize two things: my razor's battery cycle runs for only 3 minutes, and each cycle charges for 30 minutes.
I started cutting my hair at 7 pm and started cursing when the battery died a second time. This was going to take the whole night. The only saving grace was the accounting test I really had to stay up for. Joseph checked up on me during study breaks to see how the uneven patches in my head were progressing (or not progressing). He shook his head in disbelief, smirked, laughed in his room, and probably told his American friends. He gave me looks that screamed a philosophical "Why?" I finished cutting my hair at 3 am.
An accounting problem stumped me as I took the test. I scratched my head and there was only scalp. Yes, I was bald.
Teach your friends how to cut your hair
After the accounting test, I asked Joseph to shave off the unreachable patches of hair at the back of my head. Joseph got better at doing this over time. I offered to cut his but he respectfully declined.
Several distinguished friends also learned how to cut my hair: Nicole Garingalao, Masters in Communications, Georgetown University; Angelie Oliveros, BS Finance, Northwestern University; Barbara Jauregui, MD from the World Health Organization; and of course, Joseph Tieng, MBA, Georgetown University. I learned how to wear bad haircuts with a big smile.
Boundaries collapse when you ask someone to cut your hair. It's the ultimate sign of trust. All you have to do is to smile and ask.
Recycle your adobo broth
There is no getting around it: Filipino students need to learn how to cook. There is no shortage of food in the US, and the ratio of the cost of basic goods to minimum wage is lower than other countries: in other words, food is considerably cheaper if you're willing to cook.
I started with the Filipino favorites, corned beef and spam, and I must have gained 15 lbs during my first 5 months! Joseph and I shared a can each meal. I experienced signs of rheumatism and I had to stop.
I owe a lot to Skype, the biggest thing that allowed me to see my long-distance relationship with Claudine through. Skype was also the medium that taught me how to cook. This happened before the age of the iPad. I would hold my laptop's screen on top of the pan, or pot, as Claudine told me when to pour ingredients in, and when it was time to turn the stove off.
Adobo, by far, was the easiest thing to cook. Joseph actually liked my version of adobo. After making several batches of this dish, a thought nagged me: Can't I just create a whole pot of broth made of soy sauce, vinegar, water and garlic? I could just drop more raw chicken as soon as we finish the last one! It worked perfectly. The broth would last for weeks. Truth be told, adobo was more delicious each time the broth was reused!
The best part was that Joseph never knew.
Expense for heating
Each month, I would write Joseph a check for all expenses charged on his card: groceries, electricity, heating and rent. I was so worried about overspending. So much so that I talked Joseph into doing away with heating for the entire winter! He reluctantly agreed.
The first few weeks of winter was tolerable. Wearing a thick jacket, sweat pants and thick socks inside the apartment sufficed. I was proud of myself for being this ingenious Filipino. Not true at all. The pain increased as winter progressed. I would curse each time I lay down in my cold, cold bed. I would shiver for a few minutes until my body heat spread inside the comforter.
My breath formed fogs in the early hours when I had to use the bathroom. Stepping out of the shower was particularly painful. I had to psyche myself up each time I turned the hot water off. Nothing feels colder than the air that enters the shower doors as you step on the cold floor.
How much did we save? Negligible, insignificant, and nothing worth the pain. Our bills the following year when we used our heater was only about $16 more per month. Electricity in the US is one of the cheapest in the world! I blamed my experience with Meralco bills for thinking otherwise.
Hand wash your clothes
Full-time students are encouraged to take an internship at the end of their 1st year. I left for Bonn, Germany in May 2008 to work for Deutsche Postbank. Deutsche Postbank provided its interns with everything: salary, plane fares, and accommodations at Bonn's Hotel Kanzler. I was already earning but I still could not shake the habit of converting how goods and services cost in pesos. The truth is that I wanted to spend my income traveling around neighboring European cities (I visited 12 European cities by the end of my internship).
For example, laundry cost a fortune in pesos in Germany! Hotel Kanzler charged €2.50 per laundry load which was approximately P175. Each load was the size of two shoe boxes which meant, I needed a couple of loads per week; another €2.50 per load was charged to use the drier. All that amounted to P700 for laundry a week!
I turned the hotel tub into a washing bin and scrubbed my clothes with hotel soap and shampoo. The water turned brown and murky — how are my clothes this dirty?! — and I washed until my back was sore. I had never hand washed a load of clothes in my life. Hell, I only learned how to use a washing machine in the US. I was prepared to do this every weekend over the entire internship.
How did I dry my clothes? I untangled the nylon ropes that held my suitcase and balikbayan box. I secured the ropes across the fixtures in my bathroom, bedroom, and the mini-bar. My room turned into a cave of dripping office wear, shirts and socks.
Joseph visited me in Germany for a weekend. He was taking classes over the summer at Oxford University in England and wanted to travel to Berlin with me. He shook his head when I explained why ropes stretched across my hotel room. Joseph's expression read: Here goes my cheap roommate again! It just made perfect sense!
Repair your shoes
I brought a pair of P500 synthetic leather shoes from SM SouthMall. I thought the shoes looked authentic and I certainly couldn't tell the difference. The idiom "when the rubber hits the road" took on a different meaning when I used these same shoes in Bonn.
Each day, I would walk in sidewalks paved with cobblestones from Hotel Kanzlerto the bank, and back. I listened to audiobooks on how to speak Deutsche and awkwardly practiced with my German colleague, Frederik Salzmann. He, in turn, practiced English with me and regarded me as the expert on the English language and the United States. I don't think I represented the United States well at all.
Cobblestones do not agree with shoes made of fake leather and plastic. By the first month, the rubber soles were gone and holes started to appear in my shoes' heels. The repair shop said that it would cost €20 (P1,500). Das ist nichtmoeglich! I wasn't going to pay more for repair than the cost of the shoes! Don't throw good money after bad (after bad shoes!)
Instead, I bought a pack of DoubleMint(TM) gum for €1. That sounds more reasonable. Frederik and I chewed gum each chance we had. I even gave Frederik more gum even if he preferred not to have one. Bitte, Frederik? Frederik would gesture to me to raise a shoe each time he finished chewing a gum. He and I would plug the gum, and the wrappers, inside the holes of my heels. Perfect! Gaping holes sealed.
One man's garbage is another man's treasure. On my way home one day, I found a single black rubber slipper on the side of the road. I asked Frederik to bring nails to the office, which he did without question. I made rubber heels from the slippers and hammered away using empty Hefeweizen beer bottles. The hotel concierge knocked at my door at 11 pm regarding noise complaints from other guests. I replied, "Can't people fix their shoes in peace anymore?" The concierge was a friend and she laughed when I showed her my project.
The following day, nails that protruded from my shoes clinked against the bank's marble floors. People looked around expecting a frau walking in 3-inch metallic high heels. They did not find her.
I've painted a pretty accurate picture of what it was like to be a Filipino student with finite resources abroad. I could go on and on about my misadventures, but I'll probably need to share them over drinks!
I graduated in May 2009, the worst time you could possibly graduate from an MBA program. It was the height of the global recession; companies were laying people off and more than they were hiring. I was lucky enough to secure a position at one of the big 4 US consulting firms, and had two offers to choose from.
I was driven to succeed because there was a lot at stake but not a lot to fall back on. I learned to trust in God more. Most importantly, this experience has taught me not to take life too seriously! If you can wear bad haircuts with a big smile, there is really not a lot of things that can put you down.
Remember all you have to do is to ask and smile. Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.-Rappler.com
Note: US Dollar-Euro-Philippine peso conversion rates were based on 2007-2009 rates.
Glenn is a consulting manager for the healthcare provider industry at one of the big 4 US consulting firms. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Claudine, and 7-month old son, Timothy.