International Student Spotlight: Hanz Valbuena

by Saniya More

November 8, 2018

For the television, radio and film junior from the Philippines, identity is as much about where you’re going as where you’ve been

Hanz Valbuena
Television, radio and film junior Hanz Valbuena outside the student dorm in Wrocław, Poland. Photo by Ciera Moore

Hanz Valbuena, a junior in the television, radio and film program, felt disconnected from his national identity while growing up. Born in the Philippines but raised in Dubai, Valbuena attended an international school where most of his friends were Europeans or Arabs, and he was the sole Filipino.

“Racial dynamics are very different in the United Arab Emirates when compared to the States,” Valbuena says. “The bottom of society is mainly comprised of Filipinos and Indians. We take up most of the service industry and we’re not viewed in the most positive light.”

Valbuena would often find himself “code-switching”—changing his behavior to better fit in with those around him—but even that would come at a cost.

“When I was with my white friends, I would act a certain way,” Valbuena says, “and my Asian friends would say I wasn’t Asian enough because of the way I talked and dressed." 

Valbuena only truly began to embrace his Filipino roots after he came to Syracuse University and met Filipino-Americans. Valbuena says because many Filipino-Americans never actually lived in the Philippines, they receive the culture from their parents, who make a conscious effort to keep the traditions alive in their children.

“People are more proud of their identities here,” he says.

After learning to embrace his Filipino heritage, Valbuena co-founded the Filipino Student Association at Syracuse University. He says the best thing about the association is the representation of students from all walks of life, not just ones who’ve lived the Filipino-American experience. Last summer, Valbuena chose to remain in Syracuse and participate in many activities in the local community, including Filipino religious ceremonies and picnics.

Connecting with his Filipino roots also made Valbuena feel a greater affinity for local communities and stories, adding a new dimension to the global perspective he had from growing up in multi-national environments.

"When I came to Newhouse, I became more of an advocate of local movements," he says. "You can’t really handle worldwide issues if you can’t report on people within sub-communities. That’s something Newhouse has taught me."

Valbuena retains his global perspective, however, which allows him to represent different views in classes where people who’ve lived in the United States their whole lives can sometimes fail to see the entire picture. Recently a discussion about media piracy came up in an ethics and media class, and Valbuena was able to see both sides of the issue.

“For most of the world, western media is still very inaccessible. Services like HBO and Hulu are not widely used because they’re expensive, so people pirate most of their content,” Valbuena says. “You can’t just generalize these American privileges [to] the rest of the world.”

Even with his international background, Valbuena still hopes to broaden his horizons even further, which is one of the reasons he chose to study abroad in Poland this semester.

“I grew up with Europeans in a pretty anti-Semitic country. I didn’t even realize how anti-Semitic it was until I came to America,” Valbuena says. “I wanted to immerse myself in a place where being Jewish is a huge part of the identity.”

Although Valbuena’s Filipino heritage is very important to him, he wants his personal sense of identity to stretch beyond any one country or background. 

“The older I get, the more I want to identify myself as pure international,” he says. “I want to focus more on who I’m going to be rather than who I was born as.”

Saniya More is a senior broadcast and digital journalism major at the Newhouse School.