We all want a happy and fulfilling life. But the question is how do we find it? That joyful state of ikigai, or the intersection of doing what you love, what you’re good at, what you can be paid for, and what the world needs.
As a girl, there’s the added pressure of people telling you what you can and cannot be. If you’re dealing with self-doubt, you’ll need an assuring voice to remind you that you will find your way—in this case, through the stories of successful women who have gone through the same struggles you’re facing.
On this note, we welcome National Women’s Month with heartfelt “slam book” conversations with our #FutureOfYoungPinays ambassadors.
Here’s hoping you find the inspiration and advice you need to succeed in your own path.
Sittie Norhanie Hamdag Lao was only 22 when she became the youngest legislator in Philippine history. Today, the now 29-year-old law student continues to challenge the status quo to empower Mindanaoans, women, and the youth.
But Sittie was not always this fearless. In fact, she was afraid of public speaking; the mere thought of talking in front of an audience “made [her] knees feel like they’re melting and [her] throat parched.” She took up Literature in college because she expressed herself better in writing. Yet what started out as an insecurity turned into a strength.
Read on to find out what it took for Sittie to cross over from a fear of public speaking to fearlessly speaking up for the public.
Favorite subject in school and why
In high school, my favorite subject was Literature. I loved learning about different cultures and how people lived then through reading contemporary short stories and poems written by renowned authors. It always brought a great sense of curiosity in me to learn more what is out there.
School and course in college
Mindanao State University-Main Campus (Marawi); AB English Major in Literature
Why did you choose your course?
I chose Literature for two reasons: one, English was my strongest field in high school. And second, and the biggest reason was my then plan to pursue law. I was looking for a good pre-law.
Most people would choose Political Science or Accountancy as their pre-law course. But I did not identify much in those fields.
After much thought and after seeking advice from my relatives who are lawyers, I have decided to take up English.
Today, I think I made the best choice. We dissect cases like how we would in literary criticism. Proficiency in the English language is also an advantage all throughout law school and more so in practice. As a Literature major, reading voluminous books is not new.
How did your course help you become the person you are today?
My course always prompted us to think deeper in order to understand the characters as well as the authors. While many people read novels and other literary genre for pleasure, for literature majors, we always have to ask the bigger questions. And for every book we had critically analyzed, we learned to be more empathetic and our world view became bigger every time.
Today, as an individual, I carry these values and as an aspirant to be part of the legal profession, these values remind me that there are always two sides to the story and serves as a warning as well not to take everything at face value.
What was your biggest insecurity as a student? How did you overcome it?
In high school, my biggest insecurity was public speaking. I stuttered a lot because of fear. I could barely look at an audience. I expressed myself better in writing. The thought of going to the stage to deliver a speech or even lead the national anthem made my knees feel like they’re melting and my throat parched. I hated the feeling of being overcome by fear.
So, in college I decided to change that and made myself actively involved. I surrounded myself with people who spoke eloquently and with confidence and I also enrolled in public speaking classes.
I realized that the only way for us to change is to step outside our comfort zones and that means doing the things that scare us until it comes to a point that we feel comfortable and in control.
Today, I still get anxious of course. But I remind myself that my limit is what I set for myself.
What achievement are you most proud of during your school life?
I think that would be being among the Ten Outstanding Students of the Philippines (TOSP) in 2011. It was something extra special to me because it was not only a recognition of everything that I had done in college, both curricular and extra-curricular. It renewed my commitment to nation building.
Annually, TOSP recognizes ten college students from all over the country who not only worked on excelling academically, but also helped giving back to their community. I was hesitant at the beginning. But that year, I was the only semi-finalist from Mindanao and I felt that the country needs to know I am not the only one doing wonderful youth-led initiatives in Mindanao and that there are so many of us.
What’s the most important thing you learned in your student life?
The most important value I still keep from my student life is to refuse to be held back by fear—fear of failure, fear of being misjudged, fear of making the wrong decision, etc. We will always have fears or doubts, but the very first step to achieving your goals is to DECIDE whether or not today, you will allow to be overcome by your fear. We may not always get good outcomes, but the most important part of it is “trying” because the worst thing we could ask ourselves is a question that starts with “what if…”
My favorite book-turned-film ever since I was [a] child is Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events because it sends a beautiful reminder that “no matter how sinister life may be”, “there’s always something.” These are lines from that movie. But basically, it tells us not to despair even in the face of seemingly impossible trials.
Who’s your life peg? Why?
Currently, my biggest female role model is Samira Gutoc. I first met her when I joined my very first peace youth camp in high school (junior year). And that started my interest in youth and later peace advocacies in college. She tirelessly worked for the people as a civil society leader for decades.
What impressed me more is her character. Although she comes from a financially well-off background and despite having graduated from prestigious universities for undergraduate and post-graduate studies, she never flaunted it.
Fast forward to 2012, we became colleagues in the 7th Regional Legislative Assembly of ARMM. There, I observed what a down-to-earth person she is. Today, she is still the same person as how I remember her thirteen years ago. It is truly rare to find leaders with [a] strong moral compass especially in government service.
What are you passionate about?
Anything that highlights Mindanao in a good way excites me—be it in cuisine, arts, culture, tourism, etc. I’ve always felt that more interactions and dialogue must be had between Mindanaoans and those from outside Mindanao especially from Luzon.
When I came here in Manila for studies, I realized people from here have a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes against Mindanaoans and especially against Moros.
I cannot blame them especially that the national media tend to feature Mindanao only when there are armed encounters and bombings. What I see is a lack of opportunity for interaction between peoples of different cultures.
It excites me whenever more avenues are created for peoples from different cultures to interact and learn from one another.
What’s your advice on finding and pursuing one’s passion and purpose?
Know yourself and what you genuinely want. Choose something that you can imagine yourself doing for the rest of your life and always think about how your community will benefit from it.
Sometimes, there will be situations that will cast doubts in your mind which may also prompt you to jump to another calling. Being young, we are guilty of trying almost everything which is not at all bad. But this often leads us to indecision.
Having a cause greater than ourselves (greater than just earning for a living) gives us a sense of greater purpose and ultimately, fulfillment.
What’s the hardest thing about being a girl?
Double standards. We are great the way we are and capable, but our society and cultural backgrounds impose baseless double standards that work against us—inequality when it comes to pay, to work opportunities, etc.
What’s the best thing about being a girl?
Being a girl gives us more leverage when it comes to problem-solving. We are more compassionate and we approach conflict situations more realistically because we tend to delve more on the deeper issues. These qualities are extremely important in every unit, group, organization, business, or even in one’s own clique.
In your own words, what is gender equality?
Many young people today have the misconception that gender equality is treating men and women like they are the same. For instance, some would say that nowadays, men need not open doors for women since women aspire for equality. Men and women will never be the same.
Gender equality, to me, means that regardless of gender, people are afforded with the same rights and opportunities across sectors—be it economic, educational, political, and socio-civic.
This does not undermine the apparent differences between the genders. These differences are respected but in no way shall make one less than the other, or one above the other.
What is something that makes you proud to be a woman this National Women’s Month?
Breaking barriers is never easy. I remember back in college, no one, except for my parents, said I can be the first female elected student body president of MSU-Main Campus. When I asked why, many said no one would vote for me because I am a girl, that I could not handle the kind of politics we had back then because it was a boy’s field. Dramatic as sounds, that time I was shocked that some people still thought that way. I could not accept that I was being cut out not on the basis of my qualifications, but because of my gender.
Instead of being disheartened, it fueled my desire to prove them wrong.
I started with only a handful of my friends, who are mostly worried that I am dipping my fingers into the mud. I did not care whether I would win or not. What I did care about was trying and telling every girl that they, too, can. In my mind, even if I fail, I know it will break the cycle and maybe, just maybe, the next girl who will have the courage to do so would have better chances and finally win.
Fast forward, I won and became the first female elected student government president in the 59-year history of my university. As a young woman, that is my tribute to every young girl and every woman this National Women’s Month.
Kudos to Sittie for proving that social norms don’t define us. We, ourselves, get to decide what we can and cannot achieve. Man or woman, our skills and strength of character determine our success.
There’s a Swedish proverb about the magic that happens when we openly talk about our troubles and achievements: “Shared joy is double joy; Shared sorrow is half a sorrow.”
When we see the relatable struggles that other women face, our own obstacles seem less insurmountable. And when we hear about people who succeed, it sparks a confidence in us to work toward our own goals. Moreover, these success stories point us back to ourselves—with an encouraging inner voice that asks, “What are my strengths? What more can I achieve? And what achievements have I already made that are worth celebrating?”
Many, for sure.
The National Women’s Month Celebration every March is part of the worldwide observance of the International Women’s Day (IWD). Since 2017, the National Women’s Month in the Philippines has been highlighting the empowerment of women as contributors to and recipients of development.
Find more stories that will inspire you to be the best that you can be.