September 28, 2023

Eighteen-year-old Djanaya Vee Molitas Esiong dons her royal blue toga and gown ready to take the stage to deliver her virtual speech as class salutatorian in a prestigious school in America, but instead of a platform, she does it in front of a camera, while her classmates and their families watch in their screens.

The winsome Esiong led the more than 600 graduates of Tahoma High School in Washington, U.S.A. who just had their modified graduation celebration on June 10. She also received the medal for being in the top 10 percent of her class and another medal for being a state champion in the “We The People” competition and representing their state in the national finals, which was held online and landed them on eighth place. 

She also wore distinguished honors cord (white and blue), speech and debate cord (red and gray), and national advanced placement (AP) scholar cord (red). The latter is the highest recognition to students in the U.S. with high grades on the AP exams.

She and her older sister Yzylle was born in the Cordillera to parents Levenee and James who both hail from Kibungan, Benguet.

“I was only 18 months old when my parents decided to leave the Philippines and chase the promises of the American dream. They both came from towns nestled in the mountains, growing up adjacent to rice terraces and sugarcane fields. While my parents loved their life and had deep growing roots, they always dreamed that their daughters would have the opportunities that they never had. The opportunity to chase any dream that came to mind, pursue a higher education, and, one day, be even more successful than themselves,” Djanaya said in her speech.

She goes on about how this dream kept her parents motivated, despite hardships faced, to provide for their family.

Her parents were government employees at the time they left the country.

James was a school nurse while Levenee was a secondary public school teacher.  

“It was in 2003 when the doors of America opened to us. Around that time, there was a nursing shortage in the U.S. so recruiting of foreign nurses to fill the empty positions was massive. My husband was among the first Filipino recruits. Our paperwork was fast-tracked and immediately, we were saying our goodbyes to our family, friends, and co-workers,” Levenee said.

The couple with their children – Yzelle who was three years old and the 18-month-old Djanaya – boarded the plane to Texas, U.S.A. clinging to their permanent immigrant visa and one suitcase carrying their belongings.

“Although we left with heavy hearts, we sought a better future for our children. When we first arrived in the U.S., we were in awe and our first thought was, ‘so this is America, our new home’,” Levenee said. 

“Just like anyone else in a new land, it took a lot of adjustment but eventually over the years we assimilated and got used with the new environment, job, food, lifestyle, weather, people, different accents, varied perceptions, and so much more,” she added. 

James worked as a hospital intensive care unit nurse while his wife went back to school and took nursing and graduated with honors – while juggling her studies and driving her daughters to school and attended to their activities.

Levenne said in their elementary years, her daughters begun to find early artistic and academic successes.

“Yzylle and Djanaya’s art works were selected to be exhibited yearly at the Houston Show and Rodeo, winning several awards. Yzylle and Djanaya also competed in dance for a few years, winning a few competitions with their teams. Both girls received all ‘A’ awards at the end of every school year and excelled at spelling bees,” she said.

Djanaya, in her fourth grade was even the spelling bee champion of her class, her grade level, and her school enabling her to join the district spelling bee where she was the champion. At 10 years old, she competed at the televised state competition and was featured in their community newspaper.

“By the summer of 2012, our family decided to move up north to Washington State, where the weather feels more like back home in the mountains, leaving behind warm Texas. We currently reside here in the suburb of Seattle,” Levenee said.

They both work as frontliners serving the veterans in the VA Hospital of Seattle. 

“James works as a Rapid Response Team (STAT team) nurse, where he attends to patients on the hospital who are suddenly deteriorating, while I work at the stem cell transplant unit, which focuses on prolonging the lives of our veterans with blood cancers by providing them with healthy cells,” she said.

In their teenage years, Djanaya and Yzylle became active in sports as well as joining speech and debate clubs as well performing literary pieces, giving them distinctions.  

Yzelle attended community college while still in high school allowing her to graduate with a dual diploma – one from high school and another with a college degree in the Associate of Arts and with highest honors.

Now, Yzelle and Djanaya are attending the University of Washington known for its research in science, medicine, and computer science.

Yzylle is in her junior year at UW and is invested in the sciences, majoring in Chemistry and Biology with minors in Bioethics and Global Health.

“These majors and minors will build strong foundations for her application to medical school,” Levenee said.

Djanaya is planning to take a double major in Public Health and Political Science and minor in Spanish.

“She is thinking about following her sister’s footsteps into the medical field or would go to the political system and governance route as inspired by her We the People experience,” their mother added.

Despite their hectic schedules as nurses, Levenee said the couple made sure to spend time with their children by helping them out in their studies and backing them up in their chosen passions.  

“While some people like to invest their money and time in hobbies and material things, James and I invested everything, our time and love to our children. As a result, we see it pay off or rewarded,” she added. 

“My parents’ story taught me an important lesson: Rarely anything ‘worth it’ in life comes easy. It is not given to us nor handed down. We have to continue on and persevere, fighting for our dreams despite the obstacles we may encounter,” Djanaya said in her online graduation speech. – Ofelia C. Empian