Expanding the Microsoft Generation Through Tulay

Expanding the Microsoft Generation Through the Tulay Program

(Speech delivered by Susan Ople, president of the Blas F. Ople Policy Center, during the 15th Gala Anniversary Dinner of Microsoft held at Marriott Hotel, October 8, 2010)

Good evening, John Bessey, Managing Director of Microsoft Philippines and Jean-Philippe Courtois, President of Microsoft International, and to the staff and extended family of Microsoft.

When I was a little girl, I overheard my father telling my siblings that in life, you need to have three essential skills– swimming, driving, and knowing how to use a typewriter. This was way back in the days when a phone was something you had to dial, every student had a school library card, and driving in Metro Manila was not synonymous with bladder control.

Times have changed. My father started his political career during the Olivetti and IBM Selectric generation. I started my more modest career both as an NGO leader and a writer as part of the Microsoft generation. I use Microsoft Word to write my columns. I have a very active FaceBook account and so do more than 16 million Filipinos. I twit, I Skype; I download, upload, attach, scan and browse. Not too long ago, I would dial up and be ecstatic when I hear that distinct sound that tells me I’m finally connected and the World Wide Web is there for my exploration. Today, any coffee shop with a Free Wi-Fi sticker on its door becomes an instantaneous temporary office.

If you are like me, then we are part of a mass movement of people who often take for granted the myriad changes in information technology because of how quickly we adapt to it. It’s second nature. For others, it’s more difficult.  Minsan may nagtanong kung totoo ba raw na ang isang computer ay nasa tableta na, at hindi ba’t mas mahirap na yun malunok? But I digress.

There is a segment of our population that badly needs the alchemy of a digital life in order to preserve the magic and intimacy in their own lives. Because of economic and social reasons, they remain in the analog past. Some has had no chance to even get near a computer, much less turn it on. Others feel excluded not because of economic status but more of age differentials.  Many of them quietly long to be computer literate but are maybe too shy or too stressed to come forward. I refer to a huge segment of our overseas Filipino workers and their families.

In 2004, a single transformational project changed so many lives simply by teaching them how to click a mouse. That year, Microsoft through its Unlimited Potential program entered into a formal partnership with the labor department then headed by Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas through the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration then headed by the remarkable Marianito Roque. I was labor undersecretary at that time, and was in constant touch with the amazing Mae Rivera and Ms. Lori Forman.

The concept was really simple – use the Microsoft curriculum to train our OFWs and their families on computer fundamentals, word processing, the use of spreadsheets, preparing a PowerPoint presentation, uploading and attaching digital photos, starting a blog, and exploring the Internet’s social networking sites.  All these lessons to be mastered in ten days with a dedicated trainor that must adhere to one unbreakable rule – Thou shall not be angry.

When I was growing up, there was this cartoon series where the mom would always tell her kids – “Wait ‘til your father gets home.” That was how many of our adult learners felt whenever they needed to use the computer, but in the reverse.  Ang laging naririnig, “Hintayin mong dumating ang anak mo. Hintayin mong umuwi ang pamangkin mo. O ang apo mo.” The parents of OFWs) enroll in the Tulay program because they said it hurts to be brushed aside by their children whenever they ask a computer-related question. Filipino overseas workers come to us because the lessons are free, and at the end of ten days they have a Microsoft certificate to show their employers. Seafarers come to us and enroll in the Tulay program because they must be computer literate in order to board their ships. These certificates have become lifelines to a new career, a safer job, and a more productive and enriching life.

In 2008, Microsoft bestowed one of its biggest grants to the Blas F. Ople Center so that nearly all regions would have a Tulay community learning technology center in the premises of the OWWA Regional Offices.  For this year, we received a second grant to open a Tulay facility in  Cotobato City to service our OFW families in the ARMM region; to refurbish the Tulay Center in Malaysia, and so that the Ople Center located right beside the Department of Foreign Affairs could also offer free computer classes especially to seafarers’ families. Microsoft Tulay Centers in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Milan, Italy continue to offer free computer classes to our OFWs. At this point, I would like to acknowledge the help and cooperation of our friends from OWWA led by no less than Administrator Carmelita Dimzon and the chair of the OWWA Board, Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz.

From 2004 to 2010, we have had more than 20,000 Tulay graduates. Without Microsoft Tulay, these OFWs and their families would have found it difficult to cross over from analog to digital; from citizen to Netizen; from parochial to global. Now, an OFW mom can see her children on Webcam, while spouses use social networking sites to go on cyber dates.

The Microsoft Generation continues to expand every single day, bridging an OFW with his or her family, retooling the skills of the vulnerable and lowly-paid and providing everyone with new and better options.

In this room is one of our Tulay graduates. She has five children working and living overseas. Her desire to communicate with them through the Internet motivated her to walk everyday from her house to the Tulay Center in Davao City. Please meet Mrs. Buhay Tan.

My friends, every Friday, we have a little graduation ceremony in our Tulay classroom at the Ople Center. Without fail, there would always be one or two or more Tulay graduates that would cry when they receive their certificates. Let me tell you how it feels to be administering this project. It is like giving eyeglasses to someone whose vision has long been blurry – and didn’t even know it. Or giving your eldest son the keys to the family car – and cheering him on while he steers and sets his own directions.

Microsoft  and its Citizenship program continues to bring families together despite the distance; you have expanded the social networks of individuals who only had neighbors as friends; you gave the keys to a better quality of life to total strangers who thought a computer was too fragile to touch, a mouse too scary to click. More importantly, you enabled our overseas Filipino workers to scale up, and dream bigger dreams.

For the second phase of the Tulay Program, the Ople Center now combines financial literacy with computer literacy. We want the Tulay program to serve as a bridge not only for communications but also for better incomes. Elizabeth Ofianga, a former domestic helper from Kuwait, is now a freelance online magazine writer. Thanks to Microsoft Tulay. Eliza Moran, Lilybeth Deronio and several others – all Tulay graduates – have formed a cooperative and now supplies dried fish to Gaisano Malls in the Caraga Region with product labels that they themselves designed, thanks to Microsoft Tulay.

One of our Tulay graduates in Malaysia no longer works as a domestic helper but as a personal assistant to her boss, thanks to Microsoft Tulay. Clarisse Tabanao, a seafarer,  recently passed the test given by a call center, thanks to Microsoft Tulay. Several graduates have opened their own Internet cafes including a couple in Butuan City whose husband was displaced due to the global financial crisis. I would like to announce that the Blas F. Ople Center will soon sign a Memorandum of Agreement with e-Scribr and TESDA, so that our Tulay graduates can acquire transcription skills and learn how to work in a call center.

Miracles do happen. In the speed of light, as Bill Gates once described it, lives are transformed for the better. When our students cross over, tears – real tears – fall. My father, in the twilight of his years, once said: “Always, always be kind.” I remember that now and I say to all of you without even a shred, a speck, a hint of exaggeration — Tulay project is kindness – and let me say that in Arial bold, all caps, underlined and in the biggest font size possible  – truly kindness personified.

Happy anniversary and thank you Microsoft – you honor our migrant workers and their families in the best way possible – by enabling them to connect to and be a part of the ever-growing Microsoft generation. Maraming salamat po.

Author: Susan Ople

Susan "Toots" Ople is the President of the Blas F. Ople Policy and Training Institute. She's an OFW and labor advocate based in the Philippines.

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