Mae Coyiuto is guzzling ice water as if she’s in the middle of a heated tennis match. Except she is not on a tennis court – and she is not even all that thirsty. The senior at Pomona College is at a restaurant sitting across from two of her closest friends, with soothing instrumental music playing in the background and a plate of Thai noodles placed before her.
Still, Coyiuto shifts in her wooden seat. Her eyes dart back and forth between her chatting friends, teammates Maddie Gordon and Lea Lynn Yen. She glances down at her glass. Another sip.
“I drink when I’m uncomfortable,” she says sheepishly.
The source of Coyiuto’s discomfort? This conversation is all about her.
“Don’t you have, like, thousands of Instagram followers?” Gordon, a junior at Pomona, asks.
“No, no,” Coyiuto counters, shaking her head. (She has nearly 900 – though she leaves out that fact.)
Flattery is nothing new to Coyiuto, who at 21 already has written and published five books; established a leadership role on the tennis court despite fighting injury after injury; and founded a creative writing workshop for high school students, as well as an entire library, back in her home country of the Philippines.
“She’s actually the most amazing person I’ve ever met,” Yen says about her friend.
“They call her ‘Amazing Mae,’” says Ann Lebedeff, coach of the Pomona-Pitzer Colleges women’s tennis team.
Coyiuto may never get used to the praise. When it comes, her humble response is unusually genuine – no awkward smile, no feigned embarrassment. Her thoughts drift to people who have helped her along the way. She thinks of her mother, Elena, and father, Peter, who enabled her to pursue her passions in the United States, and her older siblings, Stephanie, Alex and Sofia, who showed her how to navigate those passions amid innate pressures from home. She thinks of her professors, her editors, her coaches, her teammates.
She also thinks of the kids she used to see just blocks from her suburban home outside Manila. Whenever Coyiuto headed to the all-girls Catholic school she attended for 13 years, she passed other boys and girls standing on street corners selling sampaguitas, the national flower of the Philippines. She knew the children didn’t attend school – their families needed all the help they could get. Even the sales from the flowers, while small, were significant.
Coyiuto never had to concern herself with such hardships. Now, she can’t stop.
Coyiuto left her native Philippines to play tennis at Pomona-Pitzer but returns to help less privileged kids learn to read and write.
On a sunny afternoon in February, Coyiuto begins the one-minute jaunt from the dining hall to her dorm room – a quick stop squeezed between class, lunch and tennis practice. She greets her roommate, then grabs a bag packed with essentials: two identical tennis rackets, a baseball cap, a tube of sunscreen. No change of clothes is necessary – Coyiuto has been wearing her athletic attire all day.
This is home base for Coyiuto: a tiny room with beige walls, an unmade bed and a bookshelf filled with as many young adult novels as she could manage to haul from the Philippines. She has a desk that is mostly bare and the closet of someone who hates to shop. On one wall, 27 Post-it notes hang, each with the name of a literary agent she has contacted about her work. Photos adorn another wall, a collection of open-mouthed grins and goofy smirks from Coyiuto and some of her favorite people – reminders of a life far from this Southern California campus.
Coyiuto comes from a long line of success stories in the Philippines. Both sets of grandparents emigrated from China’s Fujian province in search of a better life. Peter’s father, Robert Coyiuto Sr., taught himself English and, using the skill to communicate with foreign partners, established what today is a multinational insurance giant. Elena’s father, Tan Yu, went from being a food peddler to a store clerk to, eventually, a business mogul running a textile and real estate empire.
Peter struck out on his own after his older brother inherited their father’s company. Today, Coyiuto’s dad runs his independent life insurance company in Makati City and hopes to pass it on to his children. Her mother, too, worked in the family business for years, until she more recently picked up painting. Just last year, Elena held her first art exhibit.
The influence of her father’s initiative and mother’s creativity began emerging when Coyiuto was 6 years old. After school, while her mother was still at work, she would sneak onto the family’s boxy desktop computer, which was forbidden to the notoriously messy Coyiuto. She wrote her first story – featuring a donkey named Zak – in a slideshow presentation on PowerPoint. Elena didn’t lay down a punishment when she discovered her daughter’s exploits. Instead, she enrolled Coyiuto in writing classes.
At age 10, Coyiuto penned a series of children’s stories during her summer break. Her mother suggested they publish the stories and reached out to companies around the Philippines. Her tales about knights, gnomes and wizards caught the interest of Anvil Publishing, which in 2004 turned them into three books: “Fantastically Funny Tales,” “Friendly and Magical Tales” and “Hilarious Animal Tales.”
When she wasn’t reading and writing, Coyiuto, the baby of the family, followed around her older sister. Sofia listened to Jay Z; Mae became a fan, too. Sofia wore the latest fashion trends; Mae copied the looks. “She would just do whatever I asked her to,” Sofia says with a laugh.
After tagging along to Sofia’s tennis practices, Mae asked her mom: “Can I play, too?” Sofia eventually dropped the sport, but this time Mae didn’t follow. Instead, she immersed herself in competition, entering tournament after tournament. She visited California at age 12 to attend a three-week tennis program. She was not the most athletic of the bunch, but her grit was hard to match. She would grind and grind, eventually tiring her opponents enough for her to make a winning move she still uses to this day: a short-angled shot that darts out of bounds.
Coyiuto collected a handful of junior tennis titles and pondered the possibility of playing in college. She knew she was fortunate – other Filipino kids competed not just because they loved tennis, but because it gave them a shot at a better life. Tennis could help them afford an education.
When she was 16, Coyiuto released her first book for young adults, titled “Flight to the Stars.” She wrote it in English, the language of much of her schoolwork and of the books she read. She marveled at a launch event as relatives, friends and strangers stood in line to get their copies signed. Then a grade school-aged girl approached and handed the author her book. “I like writing, too, but I could never do this,” the young girl said. Coyiuto was at a loss for words. It pained her to think that, for whatever reason, the child believed her dream was out of reach.
Coyiuto decided she needed to do something. Something for the children selling sampaguitas on the street. For the tennis players searching for their big break. For the girl in the bookstore eager to write.
Something, anything, that could help.
The foundation came first.
Coyiuto used proceeds from her fourth book and collected donations to establish Are You READy? – a foundation that promotes literacy in the Philippines. The next year, she connected with Habitat for Humanity, which was building a community center in the city of Navotas for hundreds of families who lost their homes in a typhoon. The organization already planned to construct a day care and a center for women in the village. Coyiuto suggested a library, too. “Outside of that Habitat community, it’s really not that kid-friendly,” Coyiuto says. “I don’t think there’s a school nearby, so most of these kids don’t even go to school.”
The idea took off. Coyiuto helped plan the library’s layout, adamant that the decor include “as much color as possible.” Days after her high school graduation, she donned a hard hat and clasped a shovel for the library’s groundbreaking.
Coyiuto packed her bags for California later that summer. Until then, she had attended the same school with the same people her entire life. Even leaving home for vacations made her nervous. But her parents and sisters had studied in the U.S. Sofia had recently earned a degree in film from Santa Clara University. Coyiuto craved that opportunity for herself.
She chose Pomona, a small liberal arts college in Claremont, California. She declared psychology her major and joined a research lab on cultural neuroscience. She thought often about writing, but doubts began to circulate: Was creative writing a viable career path in the Philippines? Should she join her family’s business instead? What did her future hold?
Still, Coyiuto’s personal doubts didn’t keep her from spreading her passion to others. She received a $10,000 grant through Davis Projects for Peace, which funds student-run philanthropic projects, and used it to organize creative writing and art workshops for high school students in the Philippines. She secured classroom space in a museum, hired two instructors and selected about 30 students from dozens of applications.
When the workshops came to an end, Coyiuto helped organize a graduation ceremony. She was struck by the looks on the faces of the parents in attendance. One mother, overcome with pride, approached Coyiuto to thank her. She talked about her surprise when she learned her daughter had applied for the program. Speaking in Tagalog, she said: “I didn’t even know my kid was this great.”
Pomona-Pitzer tennis coach Ann Lebedeff was stunned that Coyiuto, despite her success, hardly talked about her books on her recruiting trip.
Ann Lebedeff knew nothing about Coyiuto before the prospective student-athlete came to visit. But a Google search revealed Coyiuto had written four books. “What an accomplishment!” Lebedeff gushed. Coyiuto was quick to downplay it.
To Lebedeff, a coach for 40 years, the modesty was refreshing. “I’ve had a lot of wonderful, great kids,” she says. “But Mae is one of those special kids you don’t get even once a decade. Maybe two in a career.”
While she is reserved off the court, Coyiuto’s competitive nature pops when she’s on it. She may not be the star of the team, but she holds her own through lengthy matches and is known for pushing her limits. After all, she knows the path to her tennis dreams requires hard work. But she didn’t always know it was possible to push too far.
Coyiuto repeatedly played through injuries without telling anyone. She suffered through heat cramps even when Lebedeff insisted she forfeit. She once went to the hospital in the middle of the night after a particularly severe muscle spasm jolted her awake.
During her sophomore tennis season, Coyiuto developed an injury she could not ignore. What started as a dull ache in the back of her hip progressed to a sharp pain that persisted even when Coyiuto sat still. Months away from tennis didn’t help. Nor did physical therapy. Doctors eventually discovered a labral tear, a cartilage injury they said surgery could fix.
“Why don’t you just not play tennis?” one doctor suggested. The comment annoyed Coyiuto. She would do anything to get back on the court.
Coyiuto underwent surgery in January 2015, then began her recovery at home in the Philippines. She spent the first month in bed, watching movies and reading books. But without something to work on, she quickly grew restless. Familiar concerns resurfaced: Should she move back to the Philippines after college or pursue a master’s degree in the U.S.? Should she follow her passion or follow her family?
Coyiuto confided in Sofia. “Why don’t you just write?” her sister suggested one day. “If it’s something you love, why not just go for it and see what happens?”
The younger sister took the words to heart. As she sat in a waiting room before another round of physical therapy, Coyiuto pulled out her notebook and began to write.
Coyiuto covers the walls of her dorm room with inspirational quotes, artwork and Post-it notes she uses as motivation.
She titled it “The Year We Became Invincible.” And this one, she was really proud of.
Coyiuto’s fifth book is about a girl, Camille, who thought she had her entire life planned out, and who narrates her senior year of high school through letters written to her future partner. The coming-of-age plotline fits perfectly into the young-adult genre to which Coyiuto is drawn. “It’s the most impressionable group of people,” she says. “I feel like they’re the ones who need stories they can relate to.”
Coyiuto finished the manuscript after a month and a half of writing. She hurried to a printing store close to home and returned with a hefty stack of paper that she left in Sofia’s room. The next morning, Coyiuto woke to a text from her sister.
The book had made Sofia cry.
Coyiuto has heard similar responses from friends and strangers alike. And now, rather than shirk from the attention, the author writes down the positive comments relayed in emails, tweets and texts. “Even if one kid tweets me and says, ‘I read your book and I want to write, too,’ that’s already a big deal for me,” Coyiuto explains. “That’s my main goal, to touch as many lives as possible, I guess.”
Coyiuto is enjoying her senior year at Pomona now, including her first season of tennis competition in over a year. After graduation, she hopes to enter a Master of Fine Arts program in the U.S. and continue to write.
She’ll eventually move back to the Philippines. But for now, Coyiuto makes the most of her visits. On a recent trip, she drove from her family’s home back to Navotas, the typhoon-ravaged city one hour away. The route was familiar yet dispiriting, the roads crammed with feeble shanty houses.
Coyiuto drove until she reached a newly built community that housed roughly 500 relocated families. Across the street from these homes, between the day care and the women’s center, was a small building painted in bright orange, blue, yellow and green. Coyiuto peeked inside and saw a circle of kids gathered around a librarian, who read a book aloud.
Then she heard the voice of a small child: “Miss, please take off your shoes.”
That’s when Coyiuto noticed. The library floors were devoid of dirt. The tables were wiped clean. The books were in pristine shape, placed neatly on the shelves.
Their homes had been torn apart and their families had lost nearly everything. But in this library, the children took pride.
Coyiuto smiled. Then she slipped off her shoes and stepped inside.