There is something about the air in America that seduces the senses. To those who have never been to the land of milk and honey, the scent one encounters in opening the ubiquitous balikbayan box (Filipino care package) is a close proxy. It is intoxicating, tempting and proven to induce reckless behavior among even the well-intentioned foreigner, even serious academics.
During the orientation for Philippine Fulbright grantees in 2009, one message was driven home like a hammer: there is no way around the two-year home residency requirement attached to a US exchange visitor (J1) visa. Not even marriage to a US national would waive this requirement. This point had to be made because the grantees included young academics, particularly women, who on record seem to be more prone to romantic liaisons while abroad (myself included). The spectre of Fulbright grantees violating their visa terms is a serious concern for an institution whose thrust is to encourage people to go back and contribute to their country’s betterment.
Academics are no exception to the hordes of Filipinos wanting to immigrate to the US to get a job (any job) that brings one closer to the middle class aspiration of a home, car/s and a 401k. Even the most ardent nationalists quickly realize how hopeless the Philippines is after spending some months abroad. No blackouts, free wifi, relatively cheap food, travel opportunities, all those green bucks-- at some point one gets seduced by the idea of a First World lifestyle. When the built-in-support network of US-based relatives is added to the mix, Filipinos get braver in facing visa violations. It’s easy to be convinced by kin who tell you that it’s sheer stupidity to return to poverty back home.
To my home university, this brain drain has exacted a heavy toll. I know of at least 8 faculty members who were sent to obtain graduate degrees in the US, Canada and Australia and who have never returned. They disappeared from the grid as soon as they found a foreign citizen they could marry or as fast as their spouses or children could obtain dependent visas. No shame in stringing the university with false promises of returning after completing their degrees. No honor in turning their backs against the tens of thousands of dollars that the university spent to support their studies. No guilt over the thought that they have singlehandedly blacklisted other faculty members from ever being considered for future grants, given the stigma of their institutional affiliation.
To American Ph.D. holders who lament the dearth of tenure-track positions and the growth of adjuncts, the case of Filipino academics who reneged on their promises to their home universities but went on to establish successful academic careers in the US presents an interesting juxtaposition. How should their personal choices of economic betterment be weighed in against our (Philippine) values of honor and debt of gratitude? Is individual scholarship more important than the ethical/moral obligation to the collective? Do US universities even consider these points when hiring?
Case in point: A Filipino-American scholar, who unbeknownst to me was a reneging fellow from our Fisheries College, was to deliver a lecture under Fulbright auspices at our university. My colleagues from the Fisheries College raised a ruckus about this and boycotted the event. I also learned that the same colleagues rejected his earlier request for my university to be his Fulbright host institution. Clearly, this person is either insensitive, had permanent amnesia that he has legal obligations with my university or worse, totally convinced that his stellar scholarly achievements in the US would conveniently make up for his past unethical conduct.
I tend not to fault people for their “lapses of moral judgment” but with reneging Philippine academics, I take exception. Professional success is never a good substitute for a clean conscience, particularly in the business of “professing.” When I was dating my husband, I told him unequivocally that if he married me, he’d have to relocate to the Philippines permanently. It was non-negotiable. I take pride in being the Fulbright Philippines’ poster girl of an academic who returned home and never regretted it.
Rosalie Arcala Hall is a professor of political science at the University of the Philippines Visayas and lives in the Philippines. She is a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.