While education is globally acknowledged as a right and not a privilege, it is not always accessible to a large number of aspiring students, especially when it comes to college.

According to the latest data gathered by Unesco Institute for Statistics in 2016, some 263 million children and young individuals around the world are out of school.

Locally, almost 10 percent of an estimated population of 39 million Filipinos, aged six to 24, were also recorded to be out-of-school children based on the Philippine Statistics Authority’s 2016 Annual Poverty Indicators Survey.

Moreover, of the 3.8 million out-of-school youths in the country, a majority 87.3 percent comprised the ages of 16 to 24, which is the average age range for tertiary education.

While there remain to be a good number of state universities and colleges which extend the lowest rates; not to mention the signing of the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act into law this year by the Duterte administration, granting full subsidy to enrollees at 112 state universities and colleges and 78 provincial universities and colleges nationwide, students and parents have more than just tuition fees to think about. The cost of pursing a degree includes food, transportation and other school-related expenses, as well as housing for others who live far away.

This reality is what generally hinders low- to middle-income families from sending children to tertiary education after high school. Rogin Paul Gopez, Jeff Moises Hontoria, Ma. Danica Castillo, Ric Jason Pangilinan, Eugenio Permejo Jr. and Japhet Dadap know this situation all too well since the six of them needed lots of help to become the new college graduates they are today.

Gopez is the son of a jeepney driver; Hontoria, of a farmer; Castillo, a pastor; Pangilinan, a tricycle driver; Permejo Jr., carinderia owner; and Dadap, a small-sized product distributor. Determined and worthy to earn a degree, these hardworking youths are grateful that despite their families’ financial limitations, a truly benevolent foundation recognized their potential and helped them earn their respective degrees.

Fueled by a relentless commitment “to help build a better tomorrow for deserving youths,” SM Foundation Inc.—the corporate social responsibility arm of SM Group of Companies—has been giving outstanding students whose families are unable to afford tertiary education access to colleges and universities for the past 25 years.

SM Group Founder, Henry Sy, Sr. and SM Foundation Trustees proudly present the 333 graduates of the foundation

In fact, the young achievers featured today in The Sunday Times Magazine are but six of this year’s 333 graduates of the SM Foundation who were feted by no less than SM’s Sy family at the 22nd Presentation of Graduates at SMX Convention Center in Pasay City.

This year’s batch comprises the largest batch of graduates since the scholarship program began in 1993. The group is all the more remarkable this 2018 what with the presence of students who survived the devastation of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Typhoon Haiyan) in 2013.

“I have always believed education is the best defense against poverty. As a kid, I had the will to strive for excellence and to overcome the hard environment,” read part of the message of “Tatang” Henry Sy, Sr., SM Group’s founder, during the momentous event.

As a tribute to the foundation and to inspire students who have just begun the new academic year, The Sunday Times Magazine shines the spotlight on the journeys of Gopez, Hontoria, Castillo, Pangilinan, Permejo Jr. and Dapdap in their own strife for excellence.

Read more: Manila Times