“I potentially want to be that adult that I needed in High School.”

By Aaron Orpilla, DC Middle & High School Program Coordinator; and Iftakhar Alam, Communications Intern

Photo Courtesy of Aaron Orpilla

Hello! What’s up everyone! My name is Aaron Orpilla, colleagues, friends, and students call me A-ron (Aye-ron). I am very excited to be AALEAD’s new DC Middle and High School Program Coordinator.

I have just recently moved from the San Francisco Bay area to the DMV area. A few fun things about me is the I love to sing and act, and musical theater is my jam. I have been performing since I was in high school, then moved onto community theater in San Francisco at Bindlestiff Studios. Some of my favorite musicals are, Hamilton, Rent, and Spring Awakening. I would love to bring my passions into program, in hopes to have the youth use performance as a platform to share their voices.

Now, let’s get into why I am here, and my journey to why I work with youth. I am a first generation Filipino American, my parents immigrated here from the Philippines in hopes to live this “American dream” for their children. I was born and raised in Hayward, California (East, of San Francisco), and went to school in a predominately Asian American community, specifically Filipino American. Though I went to school with students would looked like me, with similar upbringings, I hated being Filipino. I also hated being a student, I was never engaged in school. The reason for this was because I internalized that I wasn’t smart enough; when I had trouble understanding anything in class, my teachers would either say, “Try harder” or “We might need to hold you back.” In high school, I was very close to not graduating, when my counselor told me, “Have fun working at McDonalds!” (Looking back at this now, there is nothing wrong with working at McDonalds, this counselor equated failure to working at a fast food restaurant, which I totally disagree with.) I barely graduated high school with a 1.99 GPA, still hating being Filipino and having internalized that I was a bad student.

I went to community college after high school, with this “American dream” my parents have always had for me. I was working full-time as a manager at a retail store and going to community college at the same time. I didn’t pay much attention to school, until I was approaching my 5th year going to school, super lost of who I was and what my purpose was. It wasn’t until I took a speech class, it was the first time that a professor saw my true potential in academia. They recommended I enter my speech into a speech tournament, where I ended up winning the entire thing. This was the first time I thought, maybe I can succeed in school. I ended up joining the speech and debate team, and my coach said do speeches about the issues going on in the Asian American community. I decided to create speeches on , the effeminization of Asian men, and Filipinos in hip hop. By doing this research, I was curious, I never really studied or did any research on what it meant to be Asian American let alone being Filipino American.

I transferred to San Francisco State University with the eagerness to learn more about myself and identity. My first class was Asian American Studies, my professor, Manang Arlene Daus-Magbual. This class, this community, is what really changed my life. One of the assignments that was to ask your family who was the first person to arrive to the United States. This was a conversation I have never really talked to my parents about. I learned that my grandfather was the first person to immigrate from the Philippines to California to work in the asparagus farms. In Filipino American History in California, one of the first big waves of Filipino immigrants that arrived to America was in the 1930s. (Note: Filipinos have been in the United States since 1570) These Filipino men were labor workers, working in the farms. To learn that my grandfather was a part of Filipino American history, that paved the way for many Filipinos in America, really got me upset that I didn’t know about this sooner. I was 25 at the time when taking this class, and reflecting on this, it was only until I was in college that I found a professor that believed in me in academia, and it wasn’t until I went to a university that I was able to really learn about my identity. My proudest moment in my life was graduating with my family and community at SF State, through all of my struggles, I was able to show who I was.

So I joined many different communities during and after college. I joined the Pilipino American Collegiate Endeavor, where I served as the Political Affairs Coordinator, teaching workshops to college students about issues regarding race, class, gender, religion, and power within the Filipino and Filipino American communities. I then moved on to working with High School youth in the Excelsior district in San Francisco with Pin@y Educational Partnerships(PEP), where I was able to teach Asian American Studies to juniors and seniors. This was a transformative space for me, where I was the teacher and the student. The students were able to learn more about their identity and the intersections of oppression that they face within their own community and having them being able to voice their experiences to their community. I too, was able to learn more about myself and their community through their experiences. With my time in PEP, I was able to find my passion and that was working with youth coming from under-served communities. I potentially want to be that adult that I needed in High School.

I can not talk about my story without mentioning my partner who is my biggest cheerleader who really supported me throughout this whole process of me finding my identity, challenging me to really grow, and join communities in San Francisco to discover myself. My partner recently got into the Student Affairs Program at the University of Maryland, and I decided to make the big move with him. I knew that I wanted to move to Maryland to learn about more underrepresented and under-served communities.

Joining the AALEAD team I hope to learn about the APA youth community in Washington, DC. I can’t say it enough, but I am very excited to be part of AALEAD community. I hope you enjoyed reading my story about how I got into youth work. I am excited to hear about your stories! See you in program!

Isang Mahal (One Love),


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