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From Payatas to St. Scho, magna cum laude

Payatas in Quezon City is often pictured as a landscape most foul, a garbage dump, the receptacle of the city’s refuse. I’ve been there thrice: to do stories on a woman who turned scraps into exquisite underwear, on a thriving Church microlending cooperative for the poor, and, in 2000, on the collapse of the garbage dump, burying hundreds of waste pickers (mangangalahig).

Today I’m writing about someone who hails from Payatas—poor, very bright—and who studied as a college scholar in St. Scholastica’s College.

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Jessa Bacala graduated last Monday with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, major in financial management, magna cum laude. She also received two academic excellence awards from the Philippine Council of Deans and Educators in Business and the Philippine Association of Collegiate Schools in Business.

She need not join the thousands of new graduates who flock to job fairs. She can just choose from the job offers from reputable corporations.

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Time was when St. Scho was considered a school for girls with financial means and a good brain for academics, and who could withstand the rigors of German-style Benedictine discipline while getting steeped in ora et labora spirituality. “To be a woman of character” was a mantra stamped on our souls.

Established 108 years ago, the school has evolved into a more inclusive one and puts even greater emphasis on social involvement (which has always been there) and women-gender awareness.

Even before Jessa graduated valedictorian from the Payatas High School (a public school since renamed Justice Cecilia Muñoz-Palma High School), she had received scholarship offers from top schools. She did the round of interviews, sized up the schools’ offerings and campuses, and finally settled for St. Scho in Manila.

“I just knew this was it,” Jessa told me. She felt awed by the neo-Romanesque St. Hildegard building which has intricate arches and beautiful columns. And the chapel, she had not seen anything like it.

St. Scho gave Jessa a 4-year, tuition-free college scholarship, while the Justice Cecilia Muñoz-Palma Foundation (JCMPF) provided for the miscellaneous expenses. To keep her scholarship, she had to maintain an average grade of 3.5 (4 being the highest) and above.

Throughout our conversation, Jessa almost always answered politely in Filipino dotted with the respectful po. I smiled because she has not become inglesera, like Scholasticans were in the days of yore.

Born on Christmas Eve 1993, Jessa was named after the infant Jesus. Her father Wilfredo, 47, works as janitor in San Sebastian College while her mother Zusima, 50, helps as a vendor (“nagtitinda-tinda”). “My parents are the most precious gifts God gave me,” Jessa said. She has a younger brother and two older half-sisters on her mother’s side.

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Freshman-year adjustment and culture shock were not easy, but Jessa made the grade requirement. Her commute from Payatas to Manila took an hour. Tricycle and FX fare cost her P120 a day. Sometimes she rode the motorcycle with her father, got off in Quiapo, then took a jeep.

While on the long ride home she would pore over her notes. “At home I would just do a review. Studying at home was hard because of the noise around. We live in a 25-square-meter place, smaller than this conference room,” she said.

Jessa had always loved numbers, which was why she majored in financial management. “Oh, I’d like to have a ‘CPA’ after my name,” she said, but that can wait until she’s done supporting her brother’s college education.

Throughout our conversation, Jessa never displayed self-pity, but neither did she brag about her honors. She never envied her financially able schoolmates. “My friend Aika and I would laugh and console ourselves, They’re just ahead, we’ll catch up.”

She added: “I’d like to give credit to my classmates, Katrina, Kym, Teen and Blessie. Whenever I was short of money for baon, fare and printing expenses, they’d lend me some. When I felt down, they propped me up. The same with Ms. Emily Palma of the JCMPF and Sister Tammy (Sr. Mary Thomas Prado OSB, college president).”

For their group thesis, leader Jessa said they made a 3-year strategic plan for a securities brokers corporation. “I like financial analysis,” she said. When I told her about my sometimes befuddling experiences in online investing, these seemed easy for her. Then it was her turn to ask me about the corporate people with droppable names who had interviewed her: Are they okay? Gosh, I gasped, they personally saw you?

Only in her senior year was Jessa able to save up for a second-hand laptop, she said when I asked if she had one. Being a Mitch Albom fan, she went to his recent book-signing event in Makati. Did she get a copy? “No, I could not afford it,” she said, laughing. For her, seeing him was good enough.

She did break down when she spoke about her father who reached only fourth grade and was belittled by relatives. “They’d say, ‘Your father will never be able to send you to school.’ To help me, my father earned extra by carrying the heavy load of school children.” She took out her neatly folded hankie and wiped her tears.

What values did she learn in St. Scho? “Focus, determination, ora et labora. Napalapit ako kay God.”  Did she know that Justice Palma and President Cory Aquino were Scholasticans? Yes, she said.

We walked beside the Corinthian columns that had begun to cast shadows on the corridor and the statue of the Virgin Mary. Jessa reached out to the Virgin’s hand even while we were talking. Before we parted, I gave her a signed copy of my book. On page 58 is a piece on Payatas titled “Kalahig.”

Jessa’s words to remember: “Education is the best inheritance parents can give their children, and graduation is the crowning glory of all their sacrifices.”

Send feedback to [email protected] or www.ceresdoyo.com

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TAGS: education, graduation, Jessa Bacala, Justice Cecilia Muñoz-Palma High School, mircrolending, Mitch Albom, Payatas, Payatas High School, Philippine Association of Collegiate Schools in Business, Philippine Council of Deans and Educators in Business, Quezon City, St. Scholastica, St. Scholastica’s College
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