From beauty queen to iska

by Stephanie S. Cabigao

During the Miss Universe 2017 visit in the country with the past Miss Universe-Philippines title holders (Photo courtesy of Venus Raj)

She is just as honest as she was during her final question-and-answer portion at the Miss Universe contest in 2010. But this time, eight years later, she admits that she has a major, major problem when asked why she wanted to take up a master’s degree in Community Development.

“I’ll be very honest with you,” says the towering Bicolana beauty Venus Raj. “I had no idea what Community Development was at first. Someone told me to enroll in it as I was interested in going back to my roots and serving the community. Those were the selling points for me,” she continued.

The Community Development department panel raised the same questions that she, too, had bombarded herself with. “Why did you come here? Of all the courses, why Community Development, and why study? They were thinking, even myself, that I already had a nice job as a television personality, model, beauty queen, so why still pursue this kind of endeavor?”

With these two things in mind—going back to her roots and serving communities—the Bicol University graduate got her chance of a lifetime as the doors of UP opened to her.

Medical mission in her hometown, Bato, Camarines Sur in partnership with Freedom Fest, LCC Foundation, and the community’s church (Photo courtesy of Venus Raj)

One with the community

“I’m telling you, life in UP is way different. Yes, I studied for four years in a university and graduated from my program in Journalism. But when I entered UP, as I said in one of my interviews then, I felt like I was sent to another beauty pageant, go there and compete!” Venus says.

She is thankful to all her professors who guided her along the way. “And I think the one thing that also helped me in painstakingly coping and understanding all the jargon was my classmates,” she emphasizes.

“I have been inspired by my friends, classmates and professors who are working in the various sectors, especially when they speak about empowerment and organizing communities. Then, I would think about my contribution; how do I really do community organizing?”

A relocation site in Bustos, Bulacan opened her eyes to what community organizing really meant. Staying for a month there to fulfill a class requirement, Venus resided along with three other classmates in a vacant housing unit. “During the first week, residents consistently knocked on my door asking for photos with me or an autograph. Of course, from my line of work, it is automatic for me to take selfies with them. But one of the important things I have learned from my professors, when it comes to organizing, is that you should be one of them. You’re an effective organizer when they don’t see you as an outsider. When you’re one with the community, then you’re effective in what you’re doing.”

Fieldwork in Bicol (Photo courtesy of Venus Raj)

The star mania died down and eventually she took part in the community customs, food sharing and celebrations. “It is nice that they look at me as part of their community, a neighbor and not an outsider who just came to bring in some kind of charity to the community. It is a very fulfilling experience that gave me the realization that you can empower communities by allowing them to let them know that they can thrive on their own.”

Fieldwork in Bustos, Bulacan (Photo courtesy of Venus Raj)

Venus graduated in 2017, with a thesis that focused on women in disaster stress management. “Basically, the topic was looking at spirituality as a pillar in disaster-resilience, because most of the time, we know that there is physical intervention in disaster stress management. It became an interest because I grew up in Bicol where disasters happen often. So, I integrated community development, spirituality, and DRRM in the context of fisherfolk in my hometown in Lake Bato, Camarines Sur,” she added.

Between work and worship

Entering politics, representing an NGO, becoming a teacher, mixing community work with show business were just some career paths that most would think for her to take it to the next level.

However, serving the community took on more depth and meaning when she became an active member of the Christ Commission Fellowship (CCF) in 2014, while taking her master’s program. She was quick to say with conviction, “What do I do now? Where do I put this education to good use? Is it for the glorification of God’s name? Yes.”

Venus Raj with her CCF mentoring group (Photo courtesy of Venus Raj)

She explains: “I think the misconception is this, when you have the Lord in your life, your life will be very easy. Your wants will be provided. That’s not true. There will always be trials, there will always be challenges; but the difference is, in those trials, in those challenges, you know that you are not alone, you know that you have someone. You know that you have the Lord to battle with you.”

“In CCF, we have a lot of programs, like for example the UPLIFT program, which is a ministry. We send students to school, to college, in partnership with ALS, and create programs as well as livelihood projects for communities. From my experience, it’s really important that your heart is in what you are doing. As long as I am able to put all that I have learned from my community work and journalism courses, in church, even in life, and to reach as many people, I will never get tired of doing community work.”

Looking back on her studies, struggling to balance work and worship, everything was a humbling experience, at the same time an empowering one because she realized that work is also a form of worship if done for the Lord, according to Venus. “It kept me grounded. No matter how much I have achieved in life, I know what it is like to have nothing. I have been there.”

(Photo courtesy of Venus Raj)

If there’s one thing that she thinks will work best for Philippine community development, it’s the bibingka approach. “The community should be allowed to decide on its own, and be consulted, while at the same time, the government takes care of enforcement. At least we have some people like my professors Judy Taguiwalo and Aleli Bawagan who are fighting for marginalized communities. We see them working on a national scale and lobbying for the people.”

Venus Raj certainly proves that beyond beauty and brains, what matters in an iska is her heart.