Saturday, May 20, 2017

Graduation Day

I love happy endings; maybe because they're so rare. Four years ago, I started helping someone dear to me financially. While to me it was "just money," little did I foresee how it would lead to a beautiful, new beginning- for a family and for me. 

Last April, Mely Arbo graduated from college with a degree in education. She is 32 years old, married, with a 13-year old daughter. She was our first college scholar. 

Mely's college journey began accidentally. Her college dream, however, was a longing she kept since she graduated from high school. She was working for us part time as a yaya (nanny) to augment her husband’s income as a construction worker. During one of our chats (I have these often with my yayas), she told me how sad she was when her parents couldn’t afford to send her to college after high school. “Ano bang pangarap mo? (What was your dream?),” I said. “Gusto ko talagang maging teacher. (I really wanted to be a teacher.),” she smiled with watery eyes. Right then and there I told her to look into it. To look for universities in her province of Camarines Sur that offered degrees in Education. 

In 2010, Mely was Tessa's yaya.

The next few days she was online, researching. “Wag na ‘te, ang mahal! (Never mind, it’s too expensive!)” she said with sadness. I looked at the website. It said, “tuition per semester- around P 8000.” I was not sure if my husband would approve of the added expense in our already-inflated household budget but I said, “basta mag-apply ka. Pag nakapasok ka, pag-usapan natin. (Just apply. If you get accepted, let’s talk again.)” I said reassuringly.

Her tuition did average 7000 pesos but there were some semesters when she got into the Dean’s list which meant a tuition discount. Her monthly allowance was P 1000 with increases often at semester’s end when she would need more for projects or her thesis. At P 8000 per semester for tuition and P1000 per month allowance, the cost to send Mely to college (don’t worry, Mely, di kita sinisingil (I'm not charging you), hahaha!) was around P 120,000. A small price to pay to witness a dream fulfilled. 

School field trip to Albay

After graduation, she thanked me profusely. Even her relatives expressed their thanks to my family for supporting Mely’s dream. And although I was touched by their gratitude, all I really felt was the pride of a mother. 

Our eldest child, Paolo, graduated from SUNY Binghamton two years ago. And even if my husband and I only contributed partly to his college expenses, when he went onstage that day to receive his diploma, I wasn’t computing how much we spent to help him graduate. All we felt was pride and happiness. He made it! 

Proud parents with the graduate

And Mely made it! My pride for Mely doesn’t come from my personal satisfaction that my money helped her finish school. Yes, she might not have even considered going to college if not for the assurance that someone would shoulder a huge portion of the expenses until her graduation. Mely’s achievement is that she fulfilled her childhood dream despite the odds. 

I remember when I was a college student and new mother at the same time. It wasn’t easy. But I was lucky. I had my family to support me in caring for and paying for the needs of my baby. I drove a car to school. I had a yaya. My ex-husband and I were never hungry or needing of anything because we were financially dependent on our parents. 

I used to bring Paolo (green cap) to school with me
(above Paolo, brown headband) in between classes.

But Mely’s life is different. Prior to college, she was a homemaker; her husband the sole source of family income. She cared for her pre-teenage daughter full time. So for her to dare to break the mold, for her to deviate from the story of every married woman in her barrio; THAT took courage. She was steadfast and stubborn. She knew what she wanted. She knew this might be her only chance to get it. So she dove in and never looked back. 

I often wondered about Mely's husband, Choy. What I realized eventually is that Mely’s graduation is her husband’s achievement too. In fact, in a country where most women accept their roles to stay home and abandon their personal aspirations, he may have given the biggest sacrifice. Most Filipino men (especially in rural farming areas) would have thought, “bakit pa? 9 years na tayong kasal. Nagtratrabaho naman ako. Ang lugar ng babae ay sa bahay. (What for? We’ve been married nine years. I work and provide. A woman’s place is in the home.)” But not Choy. 

He put his support behind her. He ignored the macho man inside that said that his wife should be happy just being a wife and mother. He had to adjust to the new person his wife was becoming because she was being exposed to other people and was beginning to care for her appearance. He had to be brave too. It took a lot of security for him to trust that a smarter, more attractive, college graduate Mely would still love him and never leave him. 

The proud husband with the graduate

Mely’s story is not only a success story. It is also a love story. Mely found her passion. She listened to her inner voice. She became empowered. But it took a loving, selfless man like Choy to help her succeed. And without intending it to be, it has also become their labor of love for their daughter, Dimples. She now sees a possibility she may not have seen in her clan before. Her own mother braved many odds to get a college degree. In her head she now knows that she can too. 

Dimples pretends to be the college graduate.

I now have two more yayas who are going to college. I know mine is not a grand scholarship program. I really don’t care. And I write about it not to brag. I just want it known that it does not take much to help someone out; to help them achieve their dreams and change their lives forever. It doesn’t take a lot from us. But it will mean a lot for them, their families, children and community.

My happy ending in all of this? I may be irrelevant in the greater scheme of this country’s politics and development. But I found out how to make a difference- by empowering women in the provinces who might not have opportunities to fulfill their dreams. I want them to know that there is a chance to have a life aside from getting married and having children. If they want it. I want them to have options. I want them to know, that no matter what their age, or background, or marital status- it's never to late to make their dreams a reality.

My (in the middle) college graduation, 1994, eight years in the
making; earning a husband and baby along the way

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