Victoria Quilatan is a graduate student in physics at a university in Taoyuan County, Taiwan. She also volunteers during mass at the Hope Workers’ Center every Sunday as an usherette, altar server, choir member, and in our Lectors and Commentators program. Victoria has told the story of her experience as a migrant student for the documentary series, “The Migrant Worker’s Face.”

By Victoria Louise Quilatan
Edited by Hannes Zetzsche

My favorite present I ever received? A small pillow, dainty pink and inscribed with a teddy bear’s caricature.

The day I graduated from high school was special to me for a lot of reasons. I had been blessed to attend one of the best schools in my area, St. Joseph’s Academy, which boasted 101 years of history, inspiring architecture—such as windows made of capiz, an organ of bamboo, an adobe church—and passionate teachers. As a private school, St. Joseph’s tuition was expensive and its classes were rigorous, so my classmates and I had plenty of cause to celebrate when we received our diplomas on a brilliant, sunny day in June 2012.

Many of my friends and family members gave me gifts when I graduated from high school, though none were as special to me as the gift given me by my second-year high-school biology teacher, Ms. Vargas.  A longtime science teacher at St. Joseph’s Academy, Ms. Vargas had taught biology to multiple generations of my family—from my father, to my two older brothers, to me. Throughout my childhood, I remember my father’s insistence that he give his favorite teacher from high school a homemade ube halaya (a Filipino dessert made of mashed purple yam) every year, in thanks to her impact on him.

A gift from Ms. Vargas was special to me because of the outsized impact she had made on me, in instigating my love for science. It was through her push I learned about the existence of high-energy physics, a field I now study intensively and hope to research for the rest of my professional life.

Ms. Vargas managed to inspire me in this way through her encouragement, and breaking of the rules, so that I would participate in a science-communication competition and Quizbee. Held throughout Manila and my region of the Philippines, Quizbees are academic-testing competitions held among high-school students. During my classmates’ final year of study at St. Joseph’s academy, we became eligible to compete against regional students in a Quizbee. On the day of the competition, each student must present, in understandable terms to non-experts, the results of a scientific article; students are evaluated for their abilities to understand the scientific process described in the article and communicate the information logically to an audience.

The top students in each course at St. Joseph’s typically are nominated by their instructor to participate in the annual Quizbee. It was for this reason, despite me not being a top student, I was surprised when Ms. Vargas nominated me to participate. She later told me she had seen something in me during our class together that she thought would drive me to prepare for the rigors of Quizbee competition and take pleasure in its challenge, so she nominated me, ahead of my classmates who generally earned higher grades. After my nomination, I began meeting weekly with Ms. Vargas after class and she would stoke my intellectual passion; I would print research articles in biological topics challenging to me and she would listen as I practiced analyzing their findings, preparing for Quizbee competition.

During one of these competitions, made possible by Ms. Vargas, I first learned about high-energy physics and became fascinated by the subject. I had chosen to read and present to Quizbee judges an article about the discovery of Higgs boson, a subatomic particle that helped researchers to explain why matter has mass. The subject gripped me: I was thrilled to read about one of the fundamental building blocks of everything!

It was for this reason—for Ms. Vargas’s history of challenging and encouraging me—that I so valued her graduation gift. Along with the cheesy-pink bear pillow, she also gave me a letter, a written inspirational speech, in which she complimented some of my non-academic traits: my positive attitude, humility, and kindness. She told me she believed in me and it touched me.

I was born and raised in Metro Manila, an urban area of no tall buildings but lots of shopping malls.

The youngest of three children born to Wilfredo and Lourdes Quilatan, I was surrounded by supportive family. Though my family was not particularly wealthy, we lived in a nice area of Manila, near the Alabang neighborhood, where rich people and expensive restaurants are.

My mother and father were both active parents in their children’s lives. Though my mother had been a very good student, completing a bachelor of science in computer science, she became a housewife a few years after I was born. At the time, with three children in the home—my brothers, Kevin and Adrian, were six and four, and I was almost three—my parents decided it would best for my mother to focus her energies on raising us properly. Our family was blessed with the luxury to rely on my dad’s income.

Despite not having attended college, like my mother did, my father has established himself as a talented chef. After he finished high school, he worked for a tiling company, in laborious and dangerous conditions. His mother recognized the danger of his work and advised he change jobs; within a year, he had changed his career arc and had taken a job as a chef’s assistant in a prison, learning the trade of making large quantities of delicious food. He has since worked his way up until he is now an executive chef, a job he enjoys and which has allowed him to finance the educations of each of his children.

I have always been interested in science. When I was young, I remember watching the Discovery Channel on television with my brother, Adrian. I learned all about planets in the universe and animals in my backyard. It disappoints me to see the regression the channel has experienced in years since I watched; from recent programs I’ve watched on the channel, I think the science has been dumbed down and replaced by flashy graphics and a blinding pursuit of television ratings. I received an inspiring beginning to my science education from Discover Channel on the TV in my parents’ living room.

As the youngest child in my family, I was able to watch my two brothers as they went through school, completing high school and going on to different colleges; Kevin is now a chemical engineer for a company near our family’s home in Manila and Adrian became a nurse so he could work in London. As I saw my two brothers finish school and move toward successful careers, I recognized the importance of college in preparing them for meaningful work and realized, with the help of Ms. Vargas’s encouragement, I wanted to pursue science in college as well.

The opportunity to join CERN was like winning the jackpot to me.

CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is one of the world’s foremost laboratories for high-energy physics, my field of study. Located in Geneva, Switzerland, CERN’s campus houses the largest particle-physics laboratory in the world and annually hosts thousands of experts from throughout the world for fellowships and conferences. CERN is essential to the study of high-energy physics and that is why my advisor, Sir Ming, attends their laboratories in Geneva every year.

During the summer after my third year of college, at the University of Santo Tomas, in Manila, I was awarded an internship with Sir Ming, a professor of high-energy physics at National Central University, in Zhongli, Taiwan. My classmates and I were each required to complete an internship before we could graduate from Santo Tomas, but I remember being uninterested in the internships my classmates were pursuing. I wanted to do something meaningful, to see the world.

Since Ms. Vargas had helped me into Quizbee, and I had learned about Higgs boson particles, I had been interested in high-energy physics, though I had never considered it a reachable field; certainly, I wasn’t smart enough to study subatomic reactions! Nevertheless, I became excited when I heard of an opportunity to study high-energy physics in a laboratory, in Zhongli.

My hopes were elevated and dashed when Sir Ming responded to my application. When my adviser at the University of Santo Tomas told me I had been accepted, I was elated—Sir Ming was willing to mentor me into his field of expertise!—but my hopes were dashed as I read on.

With his acceptance, Mr. Ming also included an invitation to join him in Geneva, Switzerland, to join him as he studied and collaborated in researching with CERN. He spent every summer there and thought it would be best if I could join him, so he could mentor me in person. He thought if my university could just pay for my airfare and expenses in Geneva, then he could most aptly introduce me to his work. Alas, I knew neither my parents nor university could pay for my travel and study in Switzerland, particularly on such short notice—just months in advance—and so I assumed I would be unable to accept Sir Ming’s enticing internship.

By God’s grace and Sir Ming’s generosity, my advisor at Santo Tomas soon received a follow-up email, notifying him Sir Ming would shoulder my expenses  to join him in CERN. He had taken money from his own research grant to pay for my attendance with him. When my advisor told me this, I was astonished; I couldn’t believe it was true. But it was true and, with the support of Sir Ming, I flew the next month to Switzerland, where my passion for high-energy physics would only be stoked.

I am now in my second year of graduate studies under Sir Ming, a program extended me after the successful completion of my internship in June 2015, and I hope to complete my Master of Science degree in June 2018.

As a Catholic and a Christian, I believe I have a social responsibility to the poor—by no means does my profession excuse me from that responsibility.

It requires a complex conceptual framework to understand high-energy physics and I often find myself putting my work into layman’s terms. I tell people that in my work, I am trying to figure out what everything is made of—what are the most fundamental building blocks of everything, and how do they interact with each other? Most people know protons, electrons, and neutrons to be the smallest particle building blocks; well, I want to know what they are made of: How and why do they form? What holds them together? What happens when they break apart?

My fellow researchers and I answer these questions by smashing atomic particles’ together in a machine called a particle accelerator, housed in Geneva. For a point of understanding, I tell people to consider the aftermath of a two-car collision; you can expect to see broken glass, crumbled metal, and a loud noise, right? In a similar way, a particle accelerator is a “crash” of atomic particles being smashed together in a controlled environment to help us understand the particles’ and their smash’s properties: what breaks off from each particle? How is energy exchanged?

As fascinating as my research is to me, though, its thought often bewilders and bores other people; it’s not a field of study for everyone, and I find myself frustrated at times as well. But I don’t believe that makes it any less valuable as a benefit to mankind. Academics might sometimes garner a reputation as being confined to their libraries, uninterested in others’ lives, but I intend to buck that tendency. I see my career arc as formed to help others.

It is for this reason I have so cherished the Hope Workers’ Center since I arrived at National Central University, in Taiwan. For the first time in my life, while I studied and lived at the university, I had lived in community among people who were almost exclusively non-Filipino—a Taiwanese professor and advisor, and international dorm mates and fellow researchers—but when I attended mass at the Hope Workers’ Center, soon after arriving in 2015, I felt embraced by a compassionate community. I have since taken up volunteering roles, which I see as my opportunity to contribute to this community; I do this as a lector, usherette, choir singer, and altar server, during mass. It’s so important to me to help people to celebrate the mass every Sunday, but I have big plans to help people in my future through my field of study as well.

I have been privileged by the quality of my studies thus far, and I hope to use that knowledge to inspire other in my home country. Currently in the Philippines, there are fewer than 100 physics Ph.Ds, or students who have completed their doctor of philosophy in physics. In many colleges throughout the country, I know of physics classes taught my recent college graduates, people who, only a year or two before, were studying the same course material as they now teach. While I understand the need for this in light of a shortage of qualified teachers, I believe students are harmed when their professors are unprepared to teach.

Once I complete my Ph.D. in Taiwan, from National Central University, I hope to return to the Philippines, to research high-energy physics and teach it to young, aspiring scientists. From my preliminary research, I have seen how readily available teaching positions are in Filipino universities—because too few applicants are qualified Ph.D. professors—and I anticipate being able to get them and use them to benefit my research.

I really believe students need me there. The shortage of qualified Ph.D. professors is not because Filipinos aren’t smart enough, it’s because too few have role models in fields like physics.

Being a scientist helps me to understand technical details about subatomic particles of matter, but, perhaps more importantly, it helps me to develop as a whole person. My courses teach me to analyze what I see and what that means; in the same way, I apply that analytical reasoning to my Christian life, analyzing what is right and just. Science also teaches me to listen to reason from other sources and it teaches me to be humble; there’s a lot I don’t know about physics and life!

These are each lessons I have learned that I think demonstrate the importance of a scientific education, and its value to everybody. I feel it is my mission to return to the Philippines, a place where science is underappreciated and I can make a difference.

Ms. Vargas made a difference in me—that’s why I so treasured her sweet gift of a lacy-pink teddy-bear pillow; that’s why I have had the courage to pursue an intimidating field of study.

And that’s why I hope to be a model to inspire young scientists—like I once was.

This reflection by Victoria Quilatan has been published by the Hope Workers’ Center as an entry to “The Migrant Worker’s Face” documenting project. The Hope Workers’ Center continues to seek stories like Victoria’s with which we can add detail to migrants’ intricate face. There are two ways that you can help us. If you are a migrant worker and would be willing to share your story, we want to hear from you directly! You can read instructions about how to participate here. If you are not a migrant worker, then we ask you to continue supporting our project: read our stories weekly and invite others to do the same.

The Hope Workers’ Center is dedicated to supporting migrant workers in our community. Through this project, we hope to appreciate the beauty of each person’s life while fostering recognition among a wider audience of the struggles that migrants regularly encounter in their work. Thank you for your support!