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Coming to America: Spurred on by hope for a better future

The Bengzon family, from left, Greg, Sarah, Marcus and Sophie. CONTRIBUTED

HERNDON, Virginia — I came to America in 1992 as a 23-year old technology consultant on a J-visa.  At the time, I was working for Andersen Consulting’s (which later became Accenture LLP) Manila office and was on what was called an “offshore” systems implementation project, meaning it was a U.S.-based project with portions of the work being done in Accenture’s offshore locations such as Manila and India. The U.S.-based client requested some of the offshore staff including myself, to come to the U.S. to accelerate the work.

My family was excited for me to go, and I dutifully got on a plane and went.  I don’t remember being anxious at all on my flight from Manila to Raleigh, North Carolina.  Thinking back, I should have been concerned:  What if I got homesick?  What if I didn’t do well at work? What if I got ill?  Would I be able to drive safely in a new country?  What if I didn’t get along with my roommate? But alas, no such thoughts crossed my mind.  It’s either a case of ignorance being bliss, or youth giving one blinding courage.  In my case, maybe a little bit of both.

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Upon arrival, I was immediately put to work as a programmer in Raleigh, working 80 hours a week including weekends.  I was too excited to be in the U.S. to be homesick, and had youthful energy that didn’t mind the grueling work hours or notice that I was not paid the same as my U.S. co-workers (as a J-visa holder, I was paid my Philippine salary plus a small per diem in addition to housing and transportation provision).

Sarah Bengzon. CONTRIBUTED

Thankfully, I got along fine with my roommate and other co-workers.  The rare weekends that we were not working, we would watch drive-in movies (a novelty for me), go to local concerts, or organize road trips to see other parts of the U.S. like New York and Washington, DC.   Upon completion of my Raleigh assignment, which lasted a couple of months, I moved to another project in sunny Southern California.

This time, I was working normal consulting hours, and my corporate-provided apartment was a 5-minute walk to the beach. I enjoyed my job and I met smart, excellent, inspiring people at work, some of whom became life-long friends.   After work, we would go out for happy hour at local bars (like a good Catholic girl, I don’t drink so I’d usually be the group’s designated driver), watch freeconcerts at the Hollywood Bowl, or just walk around our neighborhood in Marina del Rey.

On the weekends, my roommate and I would get up at 4 a.m., drive all the way to San Francisco or San Diego to visit family and friends, or we’d go to Monterey Park, Rosemead or Alhambra for good ethnic food, or go rollerblading on the Venice boardwalk. Throughout the year, I’d be rummaging through sale items at outlets with my per diem savings for pasalubong for my PH family. My PH salary would go to my parents in Pampanga to help with household and education expenses for my younger siblings.  I still had no money, but I was young, full of hope and brimming with confidence.  I thought, “This must be the American dream!”

Fast forward 26 years, I am now an American citizen, having been naturalized in 2002, ten years after first arriving in America. Somewhere in there, I ended up marrying my longtime boyfriend from Manila, Greg Bengzon whose family is from Pangasinan.  Greg, an engineer, also moved to the U.S. in 1992 for a consulting job in the NY/ NJ area (while I was working in Raleigh and LA).  After working and living on opposite coasts for over two years, we decided it was time to be together and went back to Manila to tie the knot in 1994. Afterward, we settled in Glen Ridge, New Jersey where Greg was based, and I was hired by Accenture as a U.S. employee.  After 4.5 years, we moved to Herndon, Virginia where we have lived for almost 20 years.

I continue to work in the technology sector while Greg works as a patent examiner for the U.S. Patent and Trade Office.  We volunteer in our community as a way of giving back to the society that adopted us, and we actively support Fil-Am organizations to keep the connection with our heritage and roots.   I volunteer as an English teacher to non-English speaking adult immigrants, and I am a lector and a Eucharistic Minister at our local parish.  Greg and I support various charities like the Medical Mission of Mercy USA and the Knights of Columbus.  I also lead the local alumni chapter of my alma mater, the University of the Philippines (UP).   Along with my fellow alumni, we promote the UP spirit and tradition of service and excellence through various projects and activities.

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A couple of years ago, my college friends and I established a scholarship fund for the UP School of Statistics in Diliman (of which I am a graduate), and have been funding two full-time scholars a year.  In fact, we are very proud that our first UP scholar graduated magna cum laude last year and found immediate employment!  As a former Philippine Department of Science and Technology (DOST) scholar, I know firsthand how one’s life could vastly change with a high- quality education.

Greg and I are blessed with two wonderful children, Sophie, 21, and Marcus 19, both US-born and now attending universities in Virginia.  They will likely never know firsthand what it’s like to move to a new country as an adult, not even thinking about the risks and uncertainties, just excited to wake up every day and be on the journey, learning and adapting, spurred on by hope for a better future and the American dream.

Sarah Bengzon is an Associate Partner at IBM Global Business Services and former Managing Director at Accenture.  She is the President of the UP Alumni Association of the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia. 

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TAGS: Accenture LLP, Andersen Consulting, immigrant experience, immigration US, J-visa
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