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Aika Robredo at Harvard: In her own time

MASSACHUSETTS, USA – Arriving at Harvard University in June last year, she struggled with what she called the "inevitable self-doubt." Did she reach this point on her own merit, or because "I'm the daughter of the two greatest people I know?"

On Thursday morning here, May 24, under blue skies that have been rare throughout her stay and watched by a beaming mother in a sea of proud parents, Jessica Marie "Aika" Robredo prepared to march on the steps of Harvard to get the answer she deserved: a diploma in master in public administration (MPA).

"For sure, I will go home [after graduation]. Definitely I'm gonna work there," she told Rappler. 

It's come full circle for Aika, who, 19 years ago, also studied for a year here, at the Martin Luther King Jr public grade school in Cambridge, while her father finished his MPA at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (HKS).

At the time, the 10-year-old Aika basked in the snow, ran free on the streets, played the piano, and even performed as the lead character in a play called... The Karate Kid. On Sundays, she, her father, and her younger sister would give their mom a break from household chores and make do with pizza.

Between those carefree months two decades ago and today is a 30-year-old who lost her father to a plane crash in August 2012 and who found herself sharing her mother with the rest of the nation, when Leni Robredo ran and won as Philippine vice president in 2016.

ALL SET. Vice President Leni Robredo fixes the graduation cap of her daughter Aika as they prepare to attend the 367th commencement of Harvard University on May 24, 2018.

Photo by Rappler

Aika's year at Harvard – as a scholar under the Edward S. Mason Program – allowed her to keep distance from these two realities, and shape her own world.

She came across a diverse set of lecturers and students in and out of class for the course offered to mid-career professionals from all over the world.

"Our experiences and context may differ, but the problems that we face are very similar," Aika told Rappler. "It is also valuable to learn about the issues of other countries and draw parallelisms to what we face back home."

ON HER OWN. Aika Robredo with her classmates in the mid-career program at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Photo from Aika Robredo's Facebook account

Letting her hair down

At Cambridge, she walked and biked, did the laundry, tested her cooking skills, carried take-home food from occasional meals with Pinoys, and hung out with friends and classmates who knew her as Aika from the Philippines, not the daughter of Jesse and Leni Robredo.

Away from family and having to deal with bad news from the Philippines every now and then, Aika turned to the Filipino community here for support. "I think you get to have a deeper appreciation and commitment to the dreams you have for your country when you are away from it. It was comforting to know that other Filipinos here feel the same way."

Myrish Antonio, a director at HKS' Center for Public Leadership, was one of the first Filipinos here to get to know Aika.

"She makes an effort to blend with everyone, to shun any special treatment, and give her best effort to carve her own destiny at HKS," Antonio said of the Vice President's daughter.

EAGER TO COME HOME. Aika Robredo will return to Manila after her graduation on May 24, 2018 at Harvard University.

Aika labored in libraries but also discovered the rest of the world in her spare time, snapping every moment on her phone like it's her last – perhaps a lesson she learned from the sudden death of her father.

She let her hair down when she wanted to – no frills, no hangups, no added pressure to prove anything just because she's at Harvard. She studied – and had fun – with passion.

On her first days here last year, Aika was trolled for days for posting her great finds on Facebook: secondhand stuff for her small apartment. How dare she pick up all this basura (garbage), mocked the army of haters. 

HER HOME FOR A YEAR. Some of the items here were bought secondhand.

Photo from Aika Robredo's Facebook account

Aika apparently wasn't traumatized by that; last month, she started selling online her winter clothes, barely used boots, her bed, mirror, table. 

"Photo of my apartment for posterity," she said on Facebook. "My dining set is gone. My mattress is now on the floor because someone bought my bed frame this morning. Next week, my couch will be gone too."

She's not one to hide the fact that to her, every penny counts.

"She's an independent and intelligent woman who is able to do anything she sets her heart on," said Matt Cross, an Australian who attended classes with Aika. They conquered the Grand Canyon together with friends. She's "calm, thoughtful, and has an amazing sense of humor," Cross added.

Aika has in fact been making fun of her mother since the Vice President arrived here to attend Harvard's commencement week.

She asked Robredo to do her own vlog while they were visiting old haunts from their stay at Cambridge two decades ago (some of their favorites are no longer there, such as the Vietnamese restaurant Pho Pasteur, according to Robredo).

"Kinakahiya ako ni Aika sa vlog ko," the Vice President said as she was taking a video while walking the streets of Cambridge. (Aika is embarrassed about my vlog.)

On the eve of Harvard's commencement rites, Aika took a video of the Vice President ironing her graduation toga. Aika told her Instagram followers, "Namlamlantsa si... Mama, dapat kasama ito sa vlog mo. Naka-rollers ka pa." (She's ironing my clothes. Mama, you should include this in your vlog. But you're wearing rollers in your hair.)

Yet, on Thursday, among graduates of one of the world's most prestigious universities, there was no swapping of jokes between mother and daughter – only rays of joy layered with longing for the man who made a wish two decades ago, that someday, his young girl Aika would also go to Harvard like he did.

TWO DECADES AGO. Ten-year-old Aika (right) with her parents Jesse and Leni, and sister Tricia.

Photo from Aika Robredo's Facebook account

In a letter she wrote to herself in June 2017, but which was mailed to her only last month, as part of a class requirement, Aika wrote:

"I do not know how much of this you will remember or if you will feel this way again. It is a mixture of gratitude and a feeling of unworthiness – but mostly gratitude. I thought, though, that at this point and age in my life, I would have stopped wondering already if the reason why I get to be where I am is because of my own merit and not because I am the daughter of the two greatest people I know (who I will probably never live up to). I have always been proud of my parents and have always thought I've won the parental lottery, but I suppose this self-doubt is inevitable and will always be there. I just hope that by the time this letter reaches you in the future, you would have embraced this fully and would have accepted that this is a part of who you are – not in the lucky or unlucky sense, but simply as a matter of fact."

In the next few days, Aika will go back home to Manila, where, yes, she will still be her parents' daughter – and more. – Rappler.com

Glenda M. Gloria

Glenda Gloria is the managing editor of Rappler and one of its co-founders. A journalist for three decades now, Glenda has been a reporter for newspapers, magazines, and wire agencies, and has run print, online, and TV newsrooms. She is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Class 2018 .

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