Filipino Language And Culture

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Started in 1996, Penn’s Filipino language program is populated with students looking to connect with their culture and converse with their families.

Eight thousand miles away from Philadelphia lies the Philippines, a tropical archipelago dotting the Pacific Ocean. Its 117 million inhabitants speak more than 120 languages, including the country’s national language, Filipino, a modernized version of the indigenous Tagalog with loan words from English, Spanish, and Chinese. 

It’s also one of the most spoken languages in the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Filipino is the fourth most spoken language following English, Spanish, and Chinese, but Filipino language classes are rare, even at the college level. At Penn, they’ve been offered since 1996. 

This semester, Vicky Faye Aquino, is teaching Beginning Filipino to 13 students every Tuesday and Thursday evening, with the assistance of Deo Mar Suasin, a teaching assistant and Fulbright Visiting Scholar from the Philippines who is also taking classes in the Graduate School of Education. Many of the students enrolled in the course so they can connect with their heritage and communicate with their families, Aquino says. 

Though raised bilingual, Katrina Verano, a second-year student majoring in mathematics from Malvern, Pennsylvania, says she stopped practicing Tagalog during elementary school because there was no one else her age to converse with. “I was the only Filipino in my high school. I really took it to heart,” she says. “It was always only me.”

Verano says she regrets that she no longer remembers the language and is taking the class to rectify that. “I want my kids to be able to speak Tagalog. I was so grateful that my parents taught me,” she says. “I felt like it was really a gift. In order for me to stay connected as strong as I want to be, I have to speak the language.”

Many first-born Filipino Americans were not taught to speak their parents’ language, Verano says, including her cousins and most students in the class. Some students say their parents didn’t teach Filipino to them fearing they would pick up an accent or not excel at school. Assimilating and fitting in was the goal. 

Jonathan Villegas, a third-year mechanical engineering major from Pasadena, California, is biracial, and his Filipino father came to the U.S. for college at age 18. Villegas says his father “doesn’t talk about it much. He had some negative experiences being Filipino in L.A.” and felt he was passed up for jobs and promotions. 

Villegas heard about the class from another friend who had previously enrolled. Before that, learning Filipino “honestly never really occurred to me,” Villegas says. “I assumed it wouldn’t be available. A lot of colleges don’t have it.”

Jonathan Villegas (in blue cap) is learning Filipino as a Christmas present for his grandparents.

At Penn, the program was started by Erlinda Juliano 27 years ago. As she was preparing for her retirement, Juliano met Aquino at a Filipino cultural event called Barrio, hosted by the Penn Philippine Association, and started asking pointed questions. Was Aquino originally from the Philippines? She was. Does she speak Filipino fluently? She does. Had she ever taught the language before? She had.

Juliano encouraged Aquino to apply for the lecturer position. Aquino almost hesitated. She already had a full-time job as the associate director at the Pan-Asian American Community House (PAACH) and a 2-year-old daughter at home.

But the language is important to her, Aquino says. She didn’t want students to miss the chance of learning how to speak their heritage language.

Aquino stays late twice a week to teach her students, bringing movies, art, culture, and music into the classroom. Aquino took students to the Penn Museum to look at artifacts from the Philippines. She brings in cultural components, teaching the students slang and showing contemporary videos. On Oct. 31, the students are headed to PAACH for “Halo-Halloween.” Halo-Halo is an elaborately layered, special occasion dessert. There will also be singing because “Karaoke is part of our culture,” she says. “It’s not just a language class.”

Polyglot Oksana De Mesa, a clinical research nurse at the Perelman School of Medicine, is originally from Ukraine. She grew up speaking Ukrainian, learned Russian when her family immigrated to Chicago, added Mandarin, and dabbled in Spanish, Japanese, and Korean. De Mesa loves languages and enrolled in the course so she could speak with her husband in his native tongue, she says. “Plus, it would be nice to impress my in-laws eventually, especially Lola Luz, the grandmother.” (Lola means grandmother in Filipino.)

De Mesa’s Spanish has come in handy because of the abundance of Spanish loan words in Filipino, she says. This includes common vocabulary like sala (living room), gwapo (handsome; guapo in Spanish) and mundo (world), recognized in Filipino along with the Tagalog word for world, daigdig.

The commonalities are no coincidence. Spain colonized the Philippines for more than 300 years until 1898, when it ceded the region to the U.S. at the end of the Spanish-American War. The U.S. established military rule over the country and remained in power until Japanese occupation during World War II. The Philippines gained independence in 1945.

Now, Aquino says, Filipinos have a great sense of national pride in their language and culture, and students living in the diaspora want to take part. In one class, at Aquino’s urging, Verano led the class in singing the anthem, “Lupang Hinirang,” which means “Chosen Land.”

Aquino, who grew up in the Philippines, says, “Every morning, we had to sing the national anthem, place our hands over our hearts.” Most of her students had heard the anthem before. “Honestly, it’s kind of a banger,” says one of the students, and her classmates laugh and nod.

Hearing the students learn and speak Filipino is the most gratifying part of the work, Aquino says. Even though she is away from her daughter, “it’s for her, too,” Aquino says, and an important part of perpetuating the language and cultural knowledge.

Sefora Elish, a first-year nursing student from Syosset, New York, calls her grandparents to share what she’s learned after every class. They taught her a few words, she says, but mainly switched to Filipino when they wanted to tell secrets, she says. When Elish saw the language offered at Penn, “I had to do it,” she says. “It’s important because a lot of schools don’t offer it.” Often in class, Elish finds herself saying, “Oh, I know that word, but now I can put it in a sentence.”

As for Villegas, he hasn’t yet told his family in California that he’s learning Filipino. He’s going to wait. Then, during Winter Break, he can greet and surprise his grandparents with “Mano po. Kumusta po kayo,” a traditional way of greeting elders. “It’s going to be a Christmas present,” he says.

(While the terms “Filipino” and “Tagalog” refer to different variations of the language, they are used interchangeably by speakers in this story.)

Penn Lions In The Year Of The Tiger

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Dripping rain falls through barren branches along Locust Walk late on a Thursday night. Students hurry past, unwilling to linger in the unhospitable February weather. But the ARCH building glows golden. Drumbeats reverberate through the structure. Four solemn thumps announce the interplay between two fighting lions engaged in a tug of war. The ornate animals, enhanced with vibrant red, bright gold, and ruffles of sparkling sequin fabric trimmed in faux fur, are tussling over a head of romaine, the lettuce symbolic of wealth. These are the Penn Lions, an undergraduate group that spreads good luck and blessings through the traditional Chinese lion dance, and they are practicing for the Lunar New Year, a reminder of rebirth and new beginnings to come after the cold rain.

The Lions, who have two practices per week during the academic year, are training for Feb. 8 performances in collaboration with Penn Dining, which is featuring a Lunar New Year menu with recipes from Fuchsia DunlopAndrea Nguyen, and David Chang.

Traditionally spent with family, Lunar New Year is a time to root ourselves within all of our connections. The multi-week holiday is celebrated in many parts of Asia, including China, Korea, Vietnam, and Mongolia. It’s a time to prepare and reflect on how we can wish each other and ourselves blessing, prosperity, health, security, and peace for the rest of the year,
Peter Van Do Square Photo
Peter Van Do
Director of the Pan-Asian American Community House

This year marks the year of the water tiger, says Van Do, as one of the elements—wood, water, metal, fire, and earth—are also associated with the zodiac animal. This year will draw upon the embodiment of both the element and the animal, which is associated with ambition, bravery, courage, and strength, he says. 

The lion dance is believed to good luck throughout the community. “The lion dance wards off evil spirits and brings prosperity,” says Tiffany Lu, a junior from Hershey, Pennsylvania, studying fine arts in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Lu is one of the Penn Lions’ two dozen members. While she came into her freshman year as an experienced dancer in both Western and Eastern traditions, most learn lion dancing mainly through oral tradition, with upperclassmen teaching the newcomers. Only about one person per class has prior experience.

One of these was Zelan von Kaenel, a senior at Wharton specializing in finance and operations. Born to a Dutch father and Chinese and Costa Rican mother in Princeton, New Jersey, von Kaenel went to a Cantonese primary school, where the students were taught lion dancing basics. Reigniting this passion in college has been “one of my best decisions,” von Kaenel says. “The Lions has some of the friendliest and best community of people that I have met at Penn, and very diverse. If I wanted to know someone from a specific school, they are probably in Lions.”

Friendship bonds are consistently cited and praised within the Lions. “You come for the lion dancing; you stay for the community,” says Luke Bandeen, a senior from London. Far from a benign quality, this trust is essential as the two parts of the lion, the “tail” and “head,” work together as one. “The tail stabilizes the head while they do crane stands, wild kicks,” says Bandeen, who dances as a tail. He’s tall and robust—well over 6 feet—which comes in handy with the heavy lifting, called “stacking,” that is part of the tail’s role.

Statement from the Task Force on Support to Asian and Asian-American Students and Scholars

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

In April of 2020, The University of Pennsylvania established the Task Force on Support to Asian and Asian-American Students and Scholars (TAASS) to coordinate and enhance support to members of the Penn community experiencing increased stigma, bias, discrimination, and violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Task Force, now convened by the Office of Social Equity and Community, is charged with identifying recommendations to the University to better serve Asian and Asian American experiences moving forward. The Task Force is led by Vice President for Social Equity & Community and University Chaplain Rev. Dr. Charles Howard and Vice Provost for University Life Dr. Mamta Accapadi. Membership includes faculty, staff, and undergraduate and graduate students including representatives from the Undergraduate Assembly (UA) and the Graduate & Professional Student Assembly (GAPSA). 

Recent racist comments made by a member of the faculty in our university’s Law School have caused hurt and harm in the community.  Dean Ruger’s response and organizing efforts by students remind us that racist comments and perpetuation of harmful stereotypes do not reflect the values of our broader community. The Task Force joins the University and community members in condemning hateful speech. These events underscore the continued need for the University to identify and demonstrate commitment to meeting the needs of Asian and Asian American students, scholars, and community members as well as other targeted and structurally marginalized communities. The Task Force invites the Penn community to share perspectives on what resources and supports would better serve to uplift and improve Asian and Asian American experiences in both the short and long term.  Contact the task force through the Office of Social Equity and Community  

For those interested in connecting with current programs and initiatives, we encourage you to get involved with one or more of the following: 

  • The Asian American Studies Program (ASAM) is an interdisciplinary program celebrating 25 years at the University. It offers a Minor and a broad range of courses and activities that explore the historical and contemporary experiences of Asian immigrants and of persons of Asian ancestry in North America. Through core courses in Sociology, English, and History, the program explores questions of race and ethnicity in national and global contexts.  Students may complete the ASAM minor alongside a multitude of majors.
  • The Pan-Asian American Community House (PAACH) is a community resource center that develops and implements innovative programs for leadership development and community building (& service) in close collaboration with Asian & Asian American student and community groups.
  • Penn Global is comprised of the Office of the Vice Provost for Global Initiatives, Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, Perry World House, Penn Abroad, International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS), Global Support Services, and Penn Global Finance and Administration. 
  • The Pan-Asian Faculty & Staff Association (PAFSA) serves as a space for our community of Asian/Asian American-identifying staff and faculty to share ideas, knowledge, and connections. PAFSA provides networking, and professional development opportunities throughout the year. For more information and to join the network, please contact PAFSA facilitators, Aman Kaur at and Ryan Viillanueva at 

 For community members who have experienced harm, bias incidents or need support: 


Connecting with culture

Friday, November 12, 2021

If Inga Lam could live happily ever after with any food, she would marry bread. “Even as a kid, bread was my to-die-for food,” Lam said during a talk in Houston Hall’s Bodek Lounge: “Who doesn’t like bread?” she asked. “Raise your hand, and get out.” Lam, a senior video producer at BuzzFeed, was the keynote speaker of this year’s Asian American Pacific Heritage Week (APAHW). 

Founded in 1993 with earlier versions of the program held in the 1980s, APAHW is one of Penn’s longest-running heritage programs, says Peter Van Do, director of the Pan-Asian American Community House (PAACH). APAHW celebrates heritage and community and fosters awareness to “address how invisible the community is within the context of the American mainstream,” Van Do says. 

Every year, APAHW brings together guest speakers, faculty, staff, and students with a series of student-organized events that attract hundreds of attendees. This year, the week included “We’re All in This Together,” a discussion on Asian and American cultures with a “Squid Game” themed icebreaker, a talent show, an arts and crafts workshop, and a presentation from Penn professors called “Sharing Our Roots,” in collaboration with the Asian American studies program. 

“It’s amazing to see the support from Penn and PAACH communities in making sure that APAHW continues to bloom and flourish. APAHW’s programming as well as other Penn Asian and Asian American spaces are absolutely paramount, especially during these times.”

APAHW went virtual in fall 2020, with performer Anik Khan delivering the keynote. “If there was any speaker that was needed for that time, it was him,” Van Do says, calling the Bangladeshi American hip-hop artist “uninhibited.” That realness is the overlying thread in both 2020 and in 2021, as students crave connection points, Van Do says. “People are looking for something more tangible,” and APAHW provides that in significant ways. There’s been a focus on genuine authenticity and connection.” 

Lam was chosen by popular vote of the APAHW general board, says Grant Li, a junior from Toronto majoring in biology. Known for filming herself making Pixar’s Ratatouille, a confectionary version of Harry Potter’s golden snitch, or 24 hours of only eating clear foods, Lam showcases her Taiwanese culture through scallion pancake and beef noodle soup how-tos. “We all love the videos, so we wanted to invite her to speak to us here on campus,” says Li, who serves as the programming treasurer and tri-chair of APAHW. “She’s so good at promoting Asian American values.”

In her keynote talk, Lam answered questions moderated by students Sabrina Tian and Julia Yan before fielding questions from the audience. She also tasted dishes created by students from Penn Appétit, offering feedback on a biryani-style rice dish with paneer and raita as well as a strawberry tart macaroon inspired by one of Lam’s own videos

Members of Penn Appétit present their culinary creations to Inga Lam.
Members of Penn Appétit present their culinary creations to Inga Lam.

Honoring the Legacy of Kusum Soin

Saturday, January 7, 2017
Kusum Soin + alumni (L-R: Franklin Shen '03, Eugena Oh '03 & Michelle Yuen '02) at the PAACH 15 Year Celebration.

We have reached our $15,000 goal! Thank you to everyone who has helped to honor the legacy of Kusum Soin and her fifteen dedicated years at PAACH. She has connected, mentored, and inspired so many generations of students who have passed through PAACH’s doorways. We’ve specifically chosen to direct our gifts to the PAACH Endowment so that Kusum’s impact will live on in perpetuity, helping students for many more generations. We are still short of our goal to reach 150 individual donors.

Celebrating Years of PAACH

Saturday, January 7, 2017

By Peter Van Do

Welcome to the 12th annual issue of the Pan-Asian American Community House newsletter.

Time flies when you are having fun and working with great, hardworking, and passionate students. I have completed 5 years working at PAACH. PAACH has become a place where we are thriving—we are fortunate to be working with such dynamic student leaders who are working to create tangible change on campus. I am glad to be a part of the PAACH community because it allows me to support and encourage the personal success of AAPI undergraduate and graduate students at Penn. This year I am proud to announce that we have started a number of new PAACH initiatives on campus, which include a program on black, Latinx, and AAPI intersectionality called Solidarity Series, space for AAPI women named The Spice Collective, and community organization for AAPI first generation/low-income students called 7/8.

We continue to offer our signature programs. The Asia Pacific American Leadership Initiative (APALI) celebrated 15 years. Due to very generous donations to the PAACH Endowment, the program can continue to grow and provide enhanced programming for the AAPI community. The Promoting Enriching Experiences and Relationships (PEER) mentoring program will celebrate 15 years in the Fall of 2017. Asia Pacific American Heritage Week (APAHW) will celebrate 25 years in the Fall of 2017 as well.

Students can find their niche within any of the 23 groups in APSC. APSC continues to act as a strong voice for the AAPI community.

With the help of the University of Pennsylvania Asian Alumni Network (UPAAN), we raised more than $15,000 in gifts to the PAACH Endowment Fund in honor of Kusum Soin, an effort that was started by alumni at the PAACH 15 year anniversary. We are grateful to have so many alumni who contributed to this fund. With alumni support, we can build and invest in our home so that programs like APALI, APAHW, ASPIRE, 7/8, The Spice Collective, Solidarity Series and other PAACH initiatives may grow and thrive.

Alumni are an excellent resource when determining what has worked in the past and what has not worked. We invite alums to informally speak with students to discuss career goals, and to talk about ways to work together to improve PAACH. This is why we have had Career Conversations (AAPI alumni speaker series) in the PAACH Living Room.

If you are ever in town please stop by to visit us—we welcome you back to PAACH, your home away from home, with open arms. As always PAACH is open to our alumni and community partners here at Penn. We invite you to engage with us to let us know how you are doing, and to connect with our current students about professional development, networking, and job opportunities. We also encourage all of you to continue the discussions that you had in PAACH when you were a student within your respective alumni/friend circles wherever you may be.

Finally, let’s all come together to support our academic partner, Asian American Studies (ASAM), as they celebrate their 20 year anniversary during Homecoming Weekend 2017.

We will see you soon!

APALI 15th Year Anniversary

Saturday, January 7, 2017

By Miru Osuga

The APALI 15th Year Anniversary was a sentimental and invigorating call to community action. Full of sweet moments of tradition—cue the APALI letters, food friend songs, and facilitation circles—the room warmly welcomed alumni back into a community of thoughtful agents of change.

Speakers shaped a mood of inspiration. In the spirit of learning history to combat oppressive erasure, Yen Link Shek, one founder of APALI, spoke of the program’s founding. “If we don’t know our own history, we’ll repeat it,” she said. As college students, we had the privilege of having a space to organize, she reminded us. We needed to advocate for others and be leaders for society, she said. She moved us to think critically and deeply around why we were here and who was not here. We had that potential to create change; it was our responsibility to push the conversation.

Other speakers moved us as they reminded us about APALI’s powerful role today. Dr. Fariha Khan discussed APALI’s importance, especially given the election. Peter Van Do talked about APALI defining PAACH and how the program promoted leadership, growth, agents of change, complexity, and PanAsian endeavors. He ended with #HaveFun #CheerForEveryOneOn Stage #AAPride #AAStudiesNow #ThisIs2016 #BLM #LoveIsLove. Dr. Dana Nakano also spoke about the politicization of our identities, and the power of claiming “Asian American” and “Person of Color” as our labels.

Kusum also spoke of her experiences at Penn. All the notes I have on my white paper napkin are black streaks of eyeliner, remnants of make-up mixed with tears as I realized the depth of my appreciation and love for her.

I also cried because I remembered how special this space was and still is. As we shared our stories from our own experiences with APALI, I realized that time and place were different, but the spirit of the program was constant. It didn’t matter if we’d done the program one semester ago or ten years ago; the level of respect and listening that we gave each other was the same. Being in this inspired space, we felt the energy in the room, the power of a collective consciousness built throughout these last fifteen years manifesting itself today, together.