Resilience, community and service.
These three values have helped guide first-generation student Adrian Suarez, ‘22, on his journey from Mandaluyong, part of metro Manila, Philippines, to Bethlehem.
Suarez was born as an only child and lived with his mother and numerous other relatives in a big house. His dad was living and working in San Jose, California, on minimum wage, and lived with Suarez’s uncles.
Suarez said he always had the inkling that he wanted to prove himself to his father even though he never truly knew who he was. He said he wanted to find a way to get his attention and make him proud, whether it was by being a valedictorian, school president, running the school newspaper or volunteering at food drives.
The two had a tradition where they called each other every Wednesday and Sunday to speak about life for 15 minutes. His dad would send him gifts from the U.S. to the Philippines, Suarez said.
He said that not knowing his father helped build a certain resilience in him.
“Growing up, it was always difficult to understand my identity because I knew I had a father that was in America, but I had no sense of who he was,” Suarez said.
Steven Escobar-Mendez, ‘22, another first-generation student, said Suarez is humble when he talks about growing up in the Philippines, but will also sit down and talk about the flaws of living there.
“He gives it so much joy in talking about his country, his nationality,” Escobar-Mendez said. “Although he has described the faults in it, he goes out in any action he does and he’s humble.”
Escobar-Mendez said the only way to truly love both yourself and where you come from is to accept your flaws and to work on them. Imperfections mean that there’s still much to strive for, he said, and that Suarez “represents that so clearly.”
Because his mom worked multiple jobs, Suarez sought out his own additional support communities at an early age.
He said Don Bosco Technical College, the Catholic school he attended, was community-based and Suarez and referred to it as “an extended family spirit.” The lessons gained from school led him to being involved in several community service projects and allowed him to discover what servant leadership meant.
Nov. 21, 2012
Suarez said he will never forget his 13th birthday. He recalled his father calling to wish him a happy birthday, but the conversation stood out to him.
“He calls me up and I pick up the phone and then I could hear in his voice,” Suarez said. “It was different. There was a grizzly, almost ghostly spirit. The atmosphere was very icy. It was as if someone had just sucked out all the life out of him.”
He said his father didn’t say a word and remained silent for five minutes and could hear him coughing violently in the background.
Five minutes later, his father said, “Adrian, happy birthday. I love you.”
Suarez said his father had been dealing with a thermal liver disease for two years and was also an alcoholic and cigarette smoker. It was the last conversation that Suarez ever had with his father as he fell into a coma and passed away shortly after.
Suarez said he wanted to live the American dream and always had the mental image of hanging out with his father. He had dreams of riding a Mustang, going out to dinner, talking about life and having him attend his wedding. But all of that was shattered when he died.
Suarez’s mother picked him up from school and they rushed to the U.S. Embassy to get an emergency visa. His mother told the director that Suarez needed to see his father one last time. In doing so, he also met his father’s extended family for the first time.
Suarez’s first trip to the U.S. was for his father’s funeral.
He said seeing his deceased father changes his outlook on life.
“In that darkest day, it was almost as if it was also the brightest moment,” he said. “(It) let me commit myself to something bigger than whatever my limited brain could conceive God, let me in one way or another live up to that purpose.”
That purpose was to serve society as a productive and self-actualizing citizen.
This was the first of many trips to the U.S. for Suarez. The Social Security Administration made a deal with him that they would pay him to come to the U.S. every six months or as long as he graduates high school. He then started flying to the U.S. independently every six months after his father’s death.
Suarez said he used his three resounding values to help overcome the loss of his father.
He started going to church more.
“It’s this idea that you’re able to be vulnerable and you’re able to find inner strength,” Suarez said. “To tap into your innate ability to be adaptable, to grieve, feel things, heal properly and use it as a way to be a humble, involved person. To be a more self-actualized individual.”
Suarez said he was able to find his community in school and had a lot of friends who supported him.
He said he was the proponent of an adverse childhood and recalls facing verbal and emotional abuse as an only child. Even with losing a father and having an “emotionally neglectful mother,” Suarez said they did the best in the way they knew how.
He started committing himself to more meaningful service projects and helped support people going through mental health difficulties. He was a pseudo-therapist for younger students at his school to help his peers work through difficult life situations.
Suarez also started writing more and had poems published in the United Kingdom. He also had a book published online. He said he was voted as a top 10 peer counselor of the Philippines.
“It was a gift, all that time and effort served came back to me in values and in ways that I couldn’t even describe now,” Suarez said.
Aarsenio Perry, assistant dean and director for the Office of Student Engagement, said Suarez truly, genuinely cares about people.
“(He) cares about how they feel and cares about the experiences that they have,” Perry said. “He’s highly intelligent, not only intellectually smart, but smart where you can pick up on like socially intelligent and emotionally intelligent. Being able to pick up on cues in the environment and just picking up on when someone just needs someone to talk to.”
Suarez attended a global conference for Catholic youth in 2016, which he said was life changing. He got to bond and network with other international students and celebrate the Catholic spiritual service together.
He said the experience motivated him to start applying to universities abroad because he wanted to make an impact on communities beyond Manila.
“I actually thought if I was not going to get accepted into an American college, I was going to be a priest,” he said.
After getting waitlisted and denied from almost every school he applied to, he received a letter from Lehigh saying that he was accepted on a scholarship.
“I didn’t even read that email,” Suarez said. “I just saw it and I was like (Michael) Jordan who hit that last shot against the Utah Jazz and I was just over the moon. I was jumping in the air and punching my fists.”
He said financial aid was a deal breaker for him and if he didn’t receive that help, his goal of going to an American university would have been impossible.
Suarez became the first student from Don Bosco Technical College to get a scholarship from an international university and be accepted to a top 50 American university.
Since his freshman year in 2018, Suarez has made it his duty to get involved in as many clubs and organizations as possible and attend any major event on campus.
Suarez, who majors in economics and minors in global studies, wanted to go in not feeling confined to being part of one group, but rather to be an individual involved in multiple groups that can be friendly with a larger number of people, he said.
“When I look into extracurriculars, my philosophy has always been, you learn as much from it as you do academically,” he said. “I actually treated it as my personal laboratory. Experimenting and trying things out and learning.”
In his second semester freshman year, he joined Student Senate and became a Global Union Ambassador. He has also been part of many diversity and inclusion committees school-wide. After living in the first-generation dorm as a freshman, he became a Gryphon of the house in his second year. He also became the vice president for member programming in the Global Union as a sophomore.
Escobar-Mendez said Suarez was all smiles when they first met in 2018 and that they have the same intention of giving back to the community.
“We both see the need to help the community,” Escobar-Mendez said. “We both became residential assistants to try to help first-years learn more, to give an experience as we wanted because no one really gave us experience.”
Suarez had the opportunity to return to the Philippines during summer 2019 through Project Plastikan, part of a global social fellowship program.
He said his most memorable Lehigh experience was going home to participate in the three-week program while also surprising his mother.
“She had no clue,” Suarez said. “It was in the very chapel that I go to every day to pray so I knew that with my spot, she was praying in my spot. I just came in and gave her a big hug. She was over the moon for like five minutes.”
Since Lehigh went remote in March, Suarez has been staying at Lehigh and has continued to be productive. He said there are so many things out of his control, but that he still has the capability to be proactive during a pandemic.
Suarez helped organize and co-host a Lehigh Strong Variety Show on June 27 that was organized by a dozen students and live streamed on Lehigh’s YouTube channel.
Suarez said the show goes back to the resilience of the Lehigh community and the way that so many people want to serve it.
Perry helped guide Suarez during the process of organizing the event and bringing his vision to life.
“That was one opportunity that he saw himself getting engaged with the community and giving back and bridging the gap between the Lehigh and South Bethlehem community,” Perry said. “We collaborated together with that particular demand.”
Perry said Suarez also helped organize a food drive on campus for students who weren’t able to go home during the pandemic and attended Black Lives Matter protests.
Suarez is also a student staff member in the Office of Student Engagement and helps plan Lehigh After Dark events in Lamberton Hall.
Group therapy has helped Suarez overcome his challenging childhood and has been the highlight of his life.
“It made me understand my facts in a lot of ways,” he said. “I had a difficult childhood and I didn’t really have the language nor the awareness that was the case. I think it’s been through therapy, journaling and taking a more self-compassionate approach.”
Perry said Suarez’s resilience and vulnerability has stood out to him ever since he met him during his freshman year.
“Losing a parent and growing up where he did and being able to get to the U.S. to come to Lehigh, he has a very resilient story of just trying and overcoming a lot of obstacles,” Perry said. “Yet he remains so positive and yet he still remains unselfish in his pursuit to be a voice for other people.”
Perry said what makes Suarez a strong leader is that he’s able to identify the areas where he can improve on and seeks the people that can help him provide insight. He always seeks to learn more about something and acknowledges that he doesn’t have all the answers.
Suarez said his primary values going forward are to remain adventurous, learn more about technology and science and remain true to his values. He also encourages everyone to use this time to become a better version of themselves.
“In this uncertainty, use it as an opportunity to love yourself more, to be more self-compassionate and to express compassion to others,” Suarez said. “Especially people of color. Especially those marginalized. Especially LGBTQ+ minorities. Use the resources that we do have as a way to benefit others because it’s through helping others, we are in the best way helping our true selves, our higher purpose selves.”