Sunday, April 01, 2007

Proudly Pinay - First Filipina To Graduate West Point

My good friend Roxanne Estrellado Limjoco and I first wrote about Ice Achanzar back in 2004 when I was still editing a magazine called "Me" and Rox was one of our monthly contributors. Early this month, while doing a story on PMA graduates, I thought of checking out the West Point website and check if there were any Filipino graduating this year. Lo and behold -- I re-discovered Ice Achanzar and immediately, I got in touch with Rox to ask if they were still in touch. True enough, Rox continued to touch base with her. We sent Ice an emaiil and wrote the story together. And this is how the Philippine Daily Inquirer story today on page one came about --

MANILA, Philippines -- She had only asked to be part of the Philippine Military Academy, “but God gave me West Point.”

This is how Christy Isis “Ice” Achanzar, a 24-year-old native of Davao City, explains why she feels “extremely blessed” as she looks back on her three years at the premier military academy in the United States.

Next year, Achanzar will make history at the academy in New York as the first Filipino woman born and raised in the Philippines to graduate from its hallowed halls.

The US Military Academy at West Point has been in existence for over two centuries but it was only in 1975 that it began admitting female cadets.

Achanzar entered West Point in June 2004—the first Filipino woman to do so.

“The top 50 from our class during our plebe year at the PMA were asked to take an initial test,” she relates in an e-mail interview. “That number was whittled down to 16, and all of us underwent interviews [with] the respective US service academies we had chosen.” (For her, it was the Army.)

Achanzar and the others took physical tests as well as the SAT and TOEFL exams. The results came out in April when she was in Fort Magsaysay in Laur, Nueva Ecija, for summer training.

Huge surprise

Through a rigorous process of elimination, Achanzar and Filipino-Iranian Mario Feliciano, a native of Zamboanga City, were picked from the batch.

“It was a huge surprise for me since I am a female, and I know that it has always been a competition between males,” Achanzar says.

When she first heard that she had been accepted, she thought it was a joke. “I didn’t believe it until the command personally informed me about it,” she says.

Achanzar was initially plagued by doubts about pursuing her dream of going to West Point: “I didn’t want to be so far away from my family, losing the peers I had established at the PMA and doing the cadet basic training all over again, which would make me fall behind by 14 months. The different culture and environment to adjust to, the language barrier, and the thought that I was not the best in my class were all floating in my head at that point.”

But in the end she conquered her fears, and together with Feliciano, became part of West Point.

Lifelong dream

Joining the military had been a lifelong dream for the young woman who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electronics and communications engineering from the University of the Immaculate Conception in Davao.

“I had always been fascinated with the bearing and principles of men in uniform. And my question has always been how I can be an instrument of God. Our parents brought us up to be service-oriented and prayerful, and the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi has always guided my decision-making,” she says.

According to Achanzar, the most difficult aspect of being at West Point is the physical distance from her family.

“Here at the academy, we are granted more leaves than when I was at PMA. However, I’m not really that excited about it since it’s almost always impossible for me to go home and spend it with my family and friends,” she says.

On her days off, Achanzar spends time with the other Filipinos at West Point—Cadet Carl Liwanag, who will graduate in May, and Feliciano, her classmate.

She talks of the “boodle fight,” a social dining activity that sees the cadets scrambling for the boodles (or food) made up of rice, pancit canton and other Filipino dishes brought by their sponsor, Nympha Leano. “The American cadets are welcome to join us,” she says.

The Filipinos’ long weekends are sometimes spent with their host families—the Laysons in Maryland or the Floreses in New Jersey.

“These families have generously opened their homes to us cadets,” Achanzar says.

Achanzar, Liwanag and Feliciano regularly check up on one another through e-mail, phone calls and the occasional get-together.

Sharing notes, techniques

“We share notes and academic books, and techniques on physical development in the areas of swimming, gymnastics, indoor obstacle course tests, and the Army physical fitness test,” Achanzar says.

She jokes that her male Filipino classmates are “studs,” in the sense that they are extremely physically fit.

Among Achanzar’s most memorable times at the academy was when she saw her squad shine: “One summer, my squad successfully finished [its] basic training with zero-percent attrition rate and was awarded the best squad in our summer company for first detail. Three members were chosen Soldier of the Quarter for their class. I was very happy for them.”

Another memorable event was when she “shot” the enemy during a “raid operation” after what she describes as an “exciting” Black Hawk helicopter ride.

“My buddy left me when he needed to stop the enemy movement. I took a shot and both the ‘enemies’ went down. Their MILES gear (Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System) beeped when they got hit by my laser,” she relates.

Up until then, Achanzar had doubts about her ability to actually point and shoot. “I realized that when you are in the situation, you’ve just got to do it,” she says.

Equal opportunities

Being female and Filipino in a male-dominated academy does not faze Achanzar.

“Equal opportunities are granted and we get the same training. Admittedly, at certain points you cannot disregard the physical limitations of being female. It really takes a good amount of perseverance and more effort to catch up with the rest of your peers here, and so I have to train harder. People here are respectful and the environment is culturally diverse,” she says.

Achanzar says that as Filipinos at West Point, she and the other two cadets continue to keep the values imparted to them by their families and their alma mater.

“The PMA taught us not to complain about our difficulties but to try harder to get through that particular trial. You don’t always succeed in everything. When you fail, stand up and redeem yourself,” she says.

The thought of being the first Filipino woman to graduate from West Point in the near future continues to give Achanzar goose bumps and challenges her to do better so that she can promote the status of Filipino women and females in general.


And she has not forgotten the faith that carried her through the PMA and now West Point. As a PMA cadet, she remembers that in her low days, she simply prayed: “Lord, take charge and remove all the difficulties.”

After almost three years at West Point, Achanzar says her sentiments remain the same.

“My parents are my main prayer warriors,” she says. “If it wasn’t through their support and prayers and the trust of the people who gave me this opportunity ... I would not be here now.”

Story originally published on page one of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, April 1, 2007

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