|A group photo of the Pinoy Iskolars sa Korea (PIKO) General Assembly held at the Philippine Embassy in Seoul's Itaewon June 19. Philippine Ambassador to South Korea Maria Theresa B. Dizon-De Vega is in the front row eighth from right, and PIKO|
By Jon Dunbar
There are over 62,000 Filipinos living in Korea, as of 2020 government data. Of those, only less than 1 percent are students enrolled in Korea's universities. An organization of Filipinos studying in Korea came together last Sunday to discuss how best to serve the local Filipino community, their nation and their families.
Pinoy Iskolars sa Korea (PIKO) held its general assembly on Sunday at the Philippine Embassy in Seoul's Itaewon neighborhood, the scholastic organization's first such gathering since before the pandemic started. Twenty-six members came from across the country to attend in person, while two joined an online broadcast of the event, showing the desire of the community to meet once again.
PIKO President Joseph Vermont Bandoy, a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering at the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology, gave an official introduction of the organization and its recent and upcoming activities. Founded in 2006, PIKO has three main missions: helping Filipino students settle in Korea; encouraging social and intellectual exchange, fellowship and community between and among Filipino students in Korea; and serving as an accurate source of information about Korea in general, its educational opportunities and limitations.
According to statistics he presented related to PIKO members and the more general Filipino student population in Korea, the vast majority of PIKO members are at the graduate school or doctoral level, and 56 out of 80 are in the natural sciences and engineering.
The numbers he showed demonstrated that Filipino student numbers in Korea are down as of 2021, totaling 519 that year according to Korea Educational Statistics Service data. Government restrictions on international students during the pandemic are to blame for the lull, during which the Korean government stopped issuing student visas to Filipinos, according to Bandoy. But student numbers, after peaking in 2016 at around 680, are at the lowest level seen in the data presented, which reaches back to 2013.
PIKO has been offering various services and events for its members, including seminars, game nights and a free "TOPIK Talk" to help with preparation for the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK). Emphasizing PIKO's desire to make contact with more communities, he also introduced the "Humans of PIKO" project, introducing individual members. "What we want this year is for us to get to know each other," he said.
These graduate students are a small but vital part of the local Filipino community, and they are helping to make the world smaller, through both their studies and other activities in Korea.
"It can't be helped, the world is getting smaller," Philippine Ambassador to South Korea Maria Theresa B. Dizon-De Vega, who stayed for the entire event, said in an opening speech. "Right now there's a very small international community in Korea compared to other countries, at least in the countries where I've been posted before. The numbers, we believe ― and the statistics will bear this out ― will increase, and therefore there has to be a commensurate advocacy in the effort to promote multiculturalism in Korean society. And the students and the scholars who are members of PIKO and members of the greater Filipino community play a huge role in making multiculturalism more mainstream in Korean society. And I hope this is something PIKO will keep in mind through all its activities."
She added that earlier that day, she'd attended the second-ever graduation ceremony for a group of 18 Filipino workers and marriage migrants who had completed the Ateneo Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship (ALSE) program of Ateneo School of Government. She said they'd been studying for eight hours every Sunday for six months, showing the importance of education, while contrasting this experience with her own academic studies three decades prior as well as the relative privilege of PIKO members. She urged the PIKO members to appreciate "the very important and critical role you play and the opportunities you've been given to pursue higher studies in Korea."
Joeffrey Calimag, an assistant professor of global business administration at Kyungsung University in Busan and an adviser to PIKO, gave a lively speech in Tagalog urging PIKO members to remember that they make up a very tiny minority of the Filipino community in Korea, which is largely made up of migrant workers and marriage migrants. He encouraged those assembled to reach out to and identify with fellow Filipinos in Korea.
"I felt like that was also a really important reminder for us students here because I've also felt that students put an invisible divide between them and the rest of the Filipino community and that should not be the case," said Melissa Eco, a 2018 Global Korea Scholarship recipient studying for a master's degree in Korean Culture & Society at the Academy of Korean Studies in Seongnam. "His point was that PIKO should be the one taking advantage in dissolving that invisible line by reaching out first."
Eco joined PIKO in 2018 during her first year in Korea spent attending a Korean language school in Busan, and became the business manager for PIKO in 2020.
"I really encourage my fellow Filipino students to join PIKO because it is such a great information network and you get to meet a lot of amazing Filipino students that are experts in their own fields," she told The Korea Times. "Also I, for one, was given a lot of opportunities due to my affiliation with PIKO."
Also present were representatives of some of the corporate sponsors supporting PIKO, including SBI Cosmoney, Speed Mobile and Hanwha Life Insurance. A representative of Cross Remittance was unable to join due to travel quarantine rules, but provided a donation for the event and gifts for attendees. All were Filipinos themselves, and most had their own experiences of study in Korea, with many of them having been members of PIKO at the time.
Maki Yuzon, a representative of the Philippine sales and marketing team at overseas cash remittance firm SBI Cosmoney, introduced herself and her Korea story. She arrived in Korea in August 2016 to study for a master's degree in bionanotechnology at Gachon University in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province. She became vice president of PIKO in 2017, and graduated in 2018. But then she made the jump to the field of cash remittances to help her fellow Filipinos, who have high demand for the services to send money back home.
"I was offered a Ph.D., but money is life, guys," she said to laughter from the assembled students. Afterwards, she added, "Surviving in Korea as a scholar with just enough money to eat and pay rent, being offered a job was a really good opportunity for me to help my family back in the Philippines, and take a break from doing routine lab work."
Sherryl Sambo Ko, a financial planner at Hanwha Life, was also introduced as the president of Gwangju Filipino English Teachers (GFET), a partner group of PIKO also focusing on education.
Many of the speakers emphasized the need to support family, as well as the local community and their home country.
"I hope whenever [PIKO holds its events] there's always an element of applicability and an element of how we do impact the Philippines, our country," Ambassador Dizon-De Vega said.
"Living in a more developed country and with the resources at hand, the needs of our own country and our own society sometimes fade into the background. I hope that we put them in the foreground," she added.
The event was held on the 161st birthday of Jose Rizal, a hero of the Philippine Revolution who was executed by the Spanish colonial government in 1896. Participants stayed half an hour after the general assembly ended to pay tribute to Rizal and read excerpts of his writings.
Visit pikokr.com for more information, or follow @piko.kr on Instagram to see the "Humans of PIKO" project.