Alumni elect Filipina to Harvard's governing body
MASSACHUSETTS, USA – Alumni of Harvard University have elected Filipino-American Geraldine Acuña-Sunshine and 5 others as new members of the Board of Overseers, the university’s second-highest governing body that helps set the direction for the institution.
The election of Acuña-Sunshine, who was born in Roxas City, Philippines, and finished grade school at Catholic school Poveda before moving to the US in the 1980s, is the first for a Filipina and a victory for the campaign for diversity at the elite university.
She got massive support from the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard as well as from her network at the Kennedy School of Government, where she earned her masters in 1996, four years after she obtained her bachelor’s degree at Harvard College.
“It’s never been about me. All this knowledge [at Harvard], what is it for if not to elevate humanity?” Acuña-Sunshine told Rappler. “Harvard gave me this beautiful gift of learning and appreciation for the diverse gifts we bring to the world."
Past Overseers included former US presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy; former vice-president Al Gore; former senator Elizabeth Dole; South African theologian and antiapartheid activist Archbishop Desmund Tutu; and the philosopher-essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Ex-US president Barack Obama was nominated to the Board in 1991 by the Harvard-Radcliffe Alumini Against Apartheid, but he didn’t make it.
The 6 new overseers were chosen from 8 candidates nominated by a Harvard Alumni Association committee. More than 26,000 Harvard degree holders cast their ballots in the election, the university announced on May 24.
Aside from Acuña-Sunshine, those elected were Philip Hart Cullom, Meredith “Max” Hodges, Marilyn Holifield, Diego Rodriguez, and Yvette Roubideaux.
Except for Rodriguez, they will serve a term of 6 years, during which they would take part in the direction-setting for Harvard, advise university administrators, and approve certain actions by the university’s top governing body, the Harvard Corporation.
Acuña-Sunshine knows she is carrying the torch for the Philippines. In her message thanking the Harvard Club of the Philippines for its support, she said she was “incredibly proud to represent our country” on the board.
She told Rappler: "I bring to Harvard the gift of creating community because I know that no matter how brilliant you are, life is meaningless when you are alone. It is so important to always find and be with people who inspire you, who make you want to be a better person, and who constantly yet lovingly challenge you to stretch and expand both mind and heart."
Helping XDP victims
Acuña-Sunshine assumes the post after many years as a lawyer, an advocate, and a fund-raiser.
She was in high school in Texas when the Philippines ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and this shaped her view of the world and her role in it.
In 1989, while a freshman at Harvard, she worked as a consultant at the office of the late Jovito Salonga, who was then Philippine Senate president, and later interned with the late Chief Justice Marcelo Fernan.
After college, Acuña-Sunshine took up law at Columbia University and graduated in 1999. She worked in corporate law for more than 13 years before devoting her time to her advocacy in neurological research, particularly on X-linked Dystonia Parkinsonism (XDP), a debilitating neurodegenerative disease which, she said, is unique to the Western Visayan region where she comes from.
Her brother was diagnosed with the disease 5 years ago.
This led her to establish the Sunshine Care Foundation for Neurological Care and Research, which sets up free clinics and help centers for those afflicted with the disease, who, she noted, would hide it for years because they were ashamed to show or talk about their deformities.
“I was not embarrassed to talk about my brother’s disease, because if I don’t advocate for them, who will? The disease affects the entire family. It hits men in their mid-30s, when they are at the prime of their lives, forcing the women to be the breadwinner in the family.”
Using her network at Harvard and through Sunshine foundation, she has also mobilized scientists and researchers to study the disease. The research, she said in a published interview, “can add to our knowledge of the brain and help us understand the neural pathways that affect our motor systems.”
Acuña-Sunshine is married to fellow Harvard alum Gabriel Sunshine, co-founder of top Boston-based hedge fund firm Bracebridge Capital, which handles the endowments of universities such as Yale and Princeton.
She is also a cousin of Mar Roxas, whom she campaigned for in the last 2016 presidential race. – Glenda M. Gloria/Rappler.com