By Tiffany Banh
Bruce Cabanayan wasn’t hard to spot through the students crowded in the shade alongside Tommy Trojan.
The 20-year-old USC senior had donned a light blue polo and khaki shorts, sporting an outfit that embodied his put-together yet laid-back personality. After initial introductions, we hopped on our bikes and made our way to his house, charmingly enclosed by a white fence and cheery flowers.
Inside was no different. Cabanayan’s warmth radiated off the sand-colored walls and he was instantly at home.
In fact, he hadn’t always referred to Los Angeles as home until moving his life here four years ago to pursue a degree in biochemistry. Born in San Diego, Calif., Cabanayan and his family later relocated to Chandler, Ariz., a small suburb of Phoenix.
As an Asian American among a predominantly Caucasian population, Cabanayan occasionally felt the sparseness of the Asian community. Because of the large ratio of Caucasians to Asians, Cabanayan felt the students at his school formulated assumptions about him. He never thought the issue of ethnicity was an outright problem – just that there was something separating the Asian community from the rest.
“I was stereotyped or overlooked,” he said. “And they placed expectations on you that you’re quiet, which I definitely lived up to in a lot of aspects, but there is also so much more to me.”
But the culture clash disappeared when Cabanayan arrived at USC.
Here, he has been able to explore his Filipino roots through his involvement with Troy Philippines. TroyPhi is an organization that immerses university students in Filipino culture. Cabanayan has taken on various roles in TroyPhi, from acting at the forefront of its annual culture show as a freshman to coordinating the show as a sophomore to currently serving as president.
However, as a freshman, Cabanayan was baffled by the existence of a club just for Filipinos.
“Here, I was very much surprised by different aspects of the culture that I wasn’t used to,” Cabanayan said. “I didn’t know there was a whole club dedicated to bringing Filipinos together. So it was very different coming from Arizona just because of the composition of races.”
There was something of a lack of cultural roots growing up in Arizona. This void drove Cabanayan’s involvement with TroyPhi so that he became its president. Because of USC, he went from having little knowledge of to becoming the epitome of Filipino culture.
“It’s been a blessing that I got to come here and learn more about the culture,” he said.
Besides the cultural distinction between Arizona and Los Angeles, Cabanayan feels that another difference is the friendliness of Californians. When going home, he often finds that he must readjust back to Arizona’s traditionalist nature.
“Everyone in Arizona is more conservative. Coming here, everyone is hugging and everyone is loud. Just because I wasn’t used to it, the friendliness of everyone was almost overwhelming at first,” Cabanayan said.
His defining college memory is taking the stage as a freshman for TroyPhi’s culture show. The last time he had been on stage was when he played Peter Pan in elementary school. Playing the lead role reinvigorated his lost interest in acting.
To Cabanayan, being able to showcase his talent at Bovard Auditorium was an incredible sense of achievement. The experience sparked his initiative to declare a theatre minor.
When he’s not spending time on stage, Cabanayan is completing his studies in biochemistry. Coming from Arizona, where the educational climate wasn’t extremely competitive, he had the misconception that college wouldn’t be much different than high school. He soon found himself fighting to prove to his professors that he belonged alongside other top students.
Since he was in the Resident Honors Program, a program offered by USC for high school juniors to begin college a year early, he especially felt the pressure to measure up with his peers. But Cabanayan eventually realized overshadowing his peers was not most important.
“It’s more about being here to learn and challenging yourself,” he said.
As a senior preparing for graduation, Cabanayan entertains many possibilities for his future: Teach for America, medical school, social work, or even activism.
He has too many passions to stick to a particular line of work for too long. It’s likely he’ll find himself tackling any or even all of these possibilities. Regardless of what he decides to pursue, he knows that he will have the support of his family and friends.
“I want to keep a lot of options open. But it’s kind of scary right now because I don’t have a very set life. If anything, college has shown me that through hard times, you need to have those people to support you,” Cabanayan said.
Lessons well learned by a small town kid from Arizona turned big city dreamer.