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Xyza Bacani, ex-HK OFW, is now a proud NYU master's degree holder

23 May 2022

 By Daisy CL Mandap


Proud NYU scholar and master's degree holder
(photo taken by Xyza's husband, Nicholas, who is also professional photograher)

She’s come a long way, baby.

From being a second-generation migrant worker in Hong Kong to a Magnum Foundation scholar on human rights at New York University to becoming a highly sought-after photographer, then book author, Xyza Cruz Bacani has scaled an even greater height.

On May 18, she graduated from NYU’s Tisch School with a Master’s Degree in Arts and Politics. Not only did she get a scholarship to the prestigious university and program, she was also allowed to take the post-graduate course without a bachelor’s degree.


Fellow Filipino and NYU’s former science dean, Michael Purugganan, was so proud of Xyza’s achievement that he posted this on Facebook:

“In less than 10 years Xyza Cruz Bacani has gone from being a migrant OFW domestic worker to world-renowned photographer, with her photos gracing the NY Times and CNN, as well as galleries and museums around the world. Two years ago NYU was so impressed with her that even without a college degree they accepted her (with scholarship) into the rigorous M.A. in Arts Politics program at the Tisch school. On Wednesday she will be in Yankee Stadium to get her diploma!”


Purugganan poses happily with a NYU colleague and the two scholars
(from VP Leni Robredo's FB  post)

Purugganan said he wanted to shift some of the attention to Xyza, as the rest of the world had been focusing on another outstanding NYU student – Jill Robredo, youngest daughter of Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo, who graduated with a double degree in economics and mathematics, also on a full scholarship.

Xyza, who is 35, was understandably happy herself about her latest achievement. NYU is not an easy school to get into, and cracking a master’s degree without having gone through the rigors of a four-year undergraduate course would have obviously made the task doubly harder.

“I got into NYU because of my vast portfolio and the grace of an entire village of good-hearted people. They uplifted (me) and took a chance on me. They wrote recommendation letters, encouraged, and helped me financially. They openly shared their knowledge, resources, and influences. I am grateful for that,” she told The SUN via messenger.


“Being part of NYU was challenging and exciting. The seeds and offerings are stimulating to the mind. It opened up an academic side of me. The Arts and Politics cohorts and faculties are all accomplished people in their own rights. It is heartwarming to be part of a community that allows ideas to flourish.”

Less seriously, she posted on her own Facebook account that she wanted tarpaulins like those used by politicians hung in her hometown of Nueva Vizcaya “because I am the first in our family to get a graduate degree! Lol! My ancestors must be proud.


Xyza's parents (extreme left) and former employer (beside her) joined the
launch of her book in HK in 2018, along with then Consul General Tony Morales 

Xyza, who celebrated the new milestone with her new husband and longtime partner Nicholas Papananias, also posted wistfully that she wished her parents were around to see her graduate.

“Next week, I will officially have a diploma. I fulfilled a dream, not just mine but of my parents. A farmer and an OFW got a daughter with Masters in Arts Politics from NYU. I still wish that they could see me wear a violet gown that doesn't compliment my skin tone but wearing it proud and loud. This is for my descendants. I broke the chain, mama!”

Clearly, the rebellious daughter who left home at the age of 19 to follow her mother’s footsteps as an OFW so she could help send her two younger siblings to school is happy to have finally ended the cycle of poverty that used to determine her life’s path.

Through sheer talent, grit and hard work, she got to where she is now – a respected photographer and recipient of various awards, including a resolution passed by the Philippine House of Representatives in her honor and being named as one of the BBC’s 100 Women of the World.

She has also received grants from various prestigious groups like the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the WMA Commission, which funded her book, “We Are Like Air.”

Xyza believes all OFWs are capable of being the best they could be. They just need to dream.


I can never advise my fellow migrants because they are among the smartest and bravest people in the world. The courage they show every day is worth emulating,” she said.

“This is not advice but words of encouragement. Be your own heroes. We honor our sacrifices for our families by dreaming for ourselves. Everything starts with having a dream and not letting our circumstances define us. Speak kindly to ourselves and rest when there is an opportunity. Self-care is vital because we can only give when we are replenished. Do something for ourselves from time to time and pursue any hobby you’re interested in.”

Check out more stories on Xyza and her inspiring achievements here:

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