Stephanie Dofitas: Acknowledging Privilege

Stephanie was born in Buffalo, New York but came back to the Philippines when she was four. Since then, she has hopped back and forth between the Philippines and the U.S.A., where she spent a large part of her formative years. While away, Stephanie recalls telling her Mom that she wanted to go “home”. Her Mom would reply that they were, in fact, home–but Stephanie always knew something was missing.

Even back then, Stephanie remembers feeling lost in her own identity. Having absorbed cultural habits and traits from both America and the Philippines, she did not feel like she fit in seamlessly in either location. Despite this, Stephanie said she has always felt lucky to be able to call two places home.

“I can’t ever forget the privilege I have to be back here,” she said.

In college, Stephanie’s interest in her dual identity took an academic turn. For one of her final papers before graduation, she conducted research on the “identity distance” Filipino-Americans experienced and how dance and performance helped to alleviate this estrangement. One of her most intriguing discoveries revolved around the fluidity of tradition.

“People normally associate tradition with nationalistic or indigenous people, but individuals struggling to connect with parts of their identity depend heavily on it too,” Stephanie explained. “It’s how people who were displaced from their country are trying to rediscover their Filipino identity. People use performance and dance to reconnect with the culture and engage with the older generation.”

For Stephanie and many of her Filipino-American peers, learning traditional Filipino dance was part of latching onto anything that they could associate with the Philippines. At times, it was one of the few elements of the local culture that they felt justified in participating in.

“I think it was harder to engage in things like politics or community service because we felt that we didn’t have a right to engage in it. We didn’t really have a voice either,” Stephanie said.

Much of these same feelings underlie Stephanie’s own relationship to her home country. She explains:

I felt pretty melancholy and sad about my relationship with the Philippines because I didn’t feel like I had the right to get involved or engaged. I asked myself what right I had to be here and help people. I didn’t feel like I had that right. All I could say was “that’s how it is”. My large shift at the end of my sophomore year and onwards was to try to engage more and to realize that my kind of thinking was wrong. To earn the right to engage, the least I could do was learn about what was going on and share it with my peers.

At the same time, it’s more difficult for me coming from the U.S. because it’s viewed as a privilege to be from there. I’m coming with an outsider perspective. It’s difficult to talk to my peers because they’ve experienced politics in the Philippines in a way more tangible way than I have. It’s difficult not to approach it from an outsider’s perspective and to not appear as privileged. I want to be able to spend my time here and to be more involved in the community.

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Stephanie’s first step to rediscovering the Philippines is rooted in her passion for healthcare. Throughout her life, she was interested in the sciences, focusing on biology and natural sciences during her undergraduate years. But as she began to see how business and education could play a role in healthcare as well, she was compelled to apply to Ateneo De Manila University’s joint MD and MBA program.

“I’m hoping that with the dual MD-MBA, I will be able to use the MBA not just for hospital management, but also for community health and research. I want to explore how I can affect systemic change in healthcare,” she shared.

Stephanie’s first impressions of the Philippine healthcare system were molded by her father, who was a practicing physician before they left the country. The health disparities Stephanie witnessed in her youth due to the wage gap and the poverty gap continue to be stark reminders of why she is devoted to this work.

“My Dad and I used to talk about how preventative healthcare is not that big of a thing here yet,” Stephanie added. “In other words, health doesn’t really matter that much until you need to get something treated. That’s something that I want to change.”

Beyond these ambitions, however, Stephanie cites family as the biggest reason she came back to the Philippines after college.

“I wanted to come back here because I have family here that I don’t have in the states, like cousins that are the same age. I feel inspired here,” she said.

In talking about her decision to return home, Stephanie had this to say:

They always told me to go to a place where I could feel a connection–where I felt moved by the people, culture, what’s happening in the area. It feels so cheesy to say that, but it does have its truth. In the Philippines, I could be in a place where I could earn my skills and also serve, but at the same time, where I wouldn’t forget the privilege I had.

Stephanie hails from Buffalo, NY. She has roots in the Philippines where she spent much of her childhood and primary school years, moving between Pasay City, Iloilo City, and Los Banos before returning to Buffalo for the rest of middle school until college.

At the University of Pittsburgh, Stephanie took an interest to leadership centered diversity initiatives, community, and mentorship. During her presidency in Filipino Students Association (FSA), she helped lead the new Ate/Kuya mentorship in the group and sought out new ways to integrate Filipino culture and history throughout campus through events and multicultural collaboration. Also involved in the STEM field, while part of the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers (SASE) executive board, she dedicated her time to promote both diversity and STEM professional development through volunteer work in the local community such as the Carnegie Science Center, and with involvement with planning for the yearly regional and national conferences.

She was a Kaya Co. summer fellow in 2015 and interned with JoomaJam, a tech startup which focused on music and play-learning as part of an alternative education for children. Her time in the Philippines gave her a place to reconnect with her roots and serve as part of the community, alongside peers who both inspired and pushed her. Now she hopes to further come into her dual identity as both an American and Filipino as a member of the Kaya Co. team and during her graduate study pursuit.

She recently graduated from Pitt with a degree in Natural Sciences focusing on Biology and Computer Science, and also with a Certificate in Conceptual Foundations of Medicine from the Department of History and Philosophy of Science. Stephanie will be continuing her passion towards community at Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health in Manila as an MD-MBA student with hopes to be a doctor and maybe even the head of a tech startup one day–excited for stories to hear and tell.

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