Beyond being handed a crisp diploma or tossing one’s graduation cap with fervor, for many SM scholars, the completion of a college education means everything.
“Everything” means sometimes being able to share a plane ticket with your father on his first trip to Manila or being able to celebrate your debut with the money you’ve saved as part of your hard-earned allowance. Sometimes “everything” is being able to treat your family to their first meal to a popular fast food chain.
Similar to SM Founder Henry Sy’s own journey, SM Scholars have lived and survived the University of Hard Knocks before the doors of SM Foundation opened to them.
Founded by Sy, the Foundation’s college scholarship program has supported almost 4,000 scholars, covering full tuition and monthly allowances. Sy has always believed that “education is the great equalizer”. For Tatang, as he is fondly called by colleagues and employees, one of the most impactful ways to make a difference in a community is through helping a student attain a college degree -- its multiplier effect goes on as that graduate eventually becomes capable of helping his family, the company he will work for and the society as a whole.
One of the many scholars he has helped is Jeffrey Manhulad, a Manobo. Hailing from Bukidnon, Jeffry was abandoned by his mother at the age of four years old. His father took care of him while his two elder sisters were sent to live with their relatives.
After first grade, he stopped going to school to work with his father – they hauled sacks of corn on horseback, transporting the produce from different farms to the barrio. “I got P25 pesos per trip, less 50% for the commission on the horse’s owner. I would buy soup for snack and sardines for our dinner,” he recounted.
His father knew the importance of education so Jeff went back to school upon his prodding. The young boy worked in the farm to earn P50 a day so he could buy school supplies and slippers for school. “I never knew about summer vacations because I always had to work so I can have pencils, shoes and slippers, not even shoes,” he shared.
Jeff persevered despite all the challenges – he never had food allowance so he brought milled corn and dried fish for ‘baon’; he had to hike 5 kilometers back and forth, rain or shine; and helped another family without pay in exchange for food and lodging.
His father left to remarry when Jeff was in fourth grade. He stayed with his teachers as a ‘working student’ doing household chores like doing the dishes and fetching water. Notwithstanding all the difficulties he had to face every day, Jeff graduated from elementary and high school as the valedictorian.
Soon an opportunity to be a scholar presented itself when he was awarded as one of the Ten Outstanding Public School Students which eventually partnered with SM Foundation.
Soon after, he became an SM Foundation scholar and moved to Cagayan de Oro to take up Information Technology. “Life in the city was hard, even harder than my life in Bukidnon. I studied in a private university with tuition fee as high as 3 to 4 times that of a public school. Even my well-to-do classmates sometimes found it hard to pay the monthly payment to get an exam permit, but not me because I got SM Foundation on my back, all I had to do was submit my grades on time and follow up my endorsement and I was good to go for the whole semester, even receiving allowance every month. Good thing SMFI has also offered summer and Christmas jobs so I always made sure I won’t have failing grades to avoid summer subjects so I can work to earn extra for the coming school opening. But I always found time to go home -- I brought chocolates and biscuits for my stepsisters, Tatay and my stepmother bought from supermarket, and sometimes given for free by my workmates at SM City Cagayan de Oro where he worked part time at the selling area for bags and shoes and at the gift wrapping section.
With all his hard work paying off, Jeff later finished cum laude and is the first college graduate in their family. At the Presentation of Graduates, an annual event hosted by SM Foundation, Jeff fulfilled his father fondest wish. “I was happy to give him his dream of riding an airplane. He was the first person in the family to reach that,” he fondly shared.
Jeff has since found a second home and a budding career at SM Prime Holdings where he now works as an IT Supervisor for the last three years. With a steady income, Jeff bought for his father a small piece of land to farm and horses, helping the latter bid farewell to a life of hard labor.
“Life will never be the same after I was absorbed by SM Prime Holdings. Having a stable income, my siblings will never experience the hardships we had. They won’t have to work under the sun to buy their school supplies and will never be absent in school just to help in the farm. Life has improved and I keep getting closer to my ultimate dream,” he narrated.
Jeff saw Henry Sy as his role model, knowing that the latter built SM with hard work, anchored on big dreams.
“I won’t ever be close to my dreams of breaking the chains of hardships and lifting my family out of poverty. Always remember you (Henry Sy) have sent a Lumad to college, a proud Manobo from Bukidnon. Marakal na salamat!”
Rossana Tercias Adao’s father died when she was nine years old. Her single mother raised her and her brother through farming and working as an orphanage housekeeper. At a young age, Rossana knew that to be able to finish her studies and get a good job, she had to excel in her studies to get a scholarship.
As an SM scholar, she was prepared to study hard but what amazed her was that being part of the Foundation’s scholarship program also gave her another family. “SM gave me more than just education, it also gave me a family which guided me towards holistic growth and development. They provided an avenue for us to develop our spiritual, physical, social and interpersonal skills,” she shared. “I recall being excited every summer because I'll get to work at SM department store, and this would allow me to earn extra for the next semester. I learned to survive then one day at a time, and each day served as an inspiration and reminder that I was fortunate to be able to go to college,” she added.
After graduating with honors from East Asia Institute of Technology (now FEU Institute of Technology) with a degree in Computer Engineering in 1998, she was invited by her alma mater to be a member of their faculty. She was then appointed as the network administrator and was promoted to be the Director of the Computer Services and Management Information System Department and the Program Director of Information Technology Education Programs thereafter. Currently, she is the Senior Director for the College of Computer Studies of FEU Institute of Technology.
Rossana is grateful for the gift of education from Tatang Henry Sy which paved the way for her to be successful and financially secure. She is pleased that her mother who raised her and her brother solely now relishes her well-deserved retirement.
Jenefer Isidro Nizami was the eldest child of a paper mill factory worker and a housewife in Malabon. There was a time when her father’s income was not able to cover their daily expenses that he bought ‘mami’ from a soup stand, finished it and asked for a refill so he could bring it home for his family. Her most fervent prayer was to finish school and be an engineer.
The SM scholarship was “more than she asked for” – not only was her full tuition covered but she had enough money to buy books and a scientific calculator, pay for her daily commute and cover her food expenses. She recounted that she was still able to share some of her allowance to her family. She especially looked forward to working at the SM STORE during Christmas and summer breaks for extra income.
She could not have imagined how her parents were able to host a big party on her 18th birthday. Little did she know that her mother was saving a portion of the monthly allowance she received since her first day in college. “My mother used to tell me that my dream party was also given by SM Foundation,” she recalls.
After graduating with a degree in Bachelor of Science in Electronic and Communications Engineering from Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila in 2000, she worked as an instructor in a prestigious university in Bangladesh. She is now back in the country, working at Cognizant Technology Solutions in McKinley, and managing condominium units for her Airbnb rental business.
Source of hope
Ferdinand Delapuz grew up in Gagalangin, Tondo, Manila. He is the youngest of four children of an electrician who works as a waiter on the side, and a homemaker. His father had to retire early due to frail health and his eldest brother had to take over as their breadwinner.
Not wanting to be a financial burden, he hurriedly applied to the SM scholarship program when he saw its poster on the bulletin board at Torres High School. He got qualified and was grateful for the privilege to finish college with a degree on Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering a FEU-East Asia. After graduation, he worked at a Japanese company, where he has been for almost 20 years.
In 2015, Delapuz was able to purchase his own house in Cabuyao, Laguna. He basks in its “nice location, peaceful ambiance and cool surroundings.” This milestone was a dream come true for someone who grew up in a rented apartment in a crowded neighborhood.
“There is something that only an SM scholar like me would be able to understand. The scholarship is not just about saving money and free education, what’s more essential was that SM Foundation gave us hope,” he explained. “As an SM scholar alumnus, I am now the one who wants to provide hope to other students who may be experiencing the same difficulties I faced before. Giving hope is now a ripple effect,” proudly adding that it’s now the time to tell his own story to inspire younger scholars.
Leonila Cabangbang used to sell vegetables on sidewalks with her grandmother to help her family earn. Her father was a laborer while her mother was a housewife.
After high school, she worked as a cashier at a billiard hall. She saw the SM college scholarship poster and pushed herself to do her best during the exam and interview as she knew that the grant will be the instrument that will help her family.
She took up Bachelor of Elementary Education (BEED) with English Concentration at Philippine Normal University. She used her allowance for school projects and saved the rest so she could buy a second hand television for her family. “I felt honored that I was able to put smiles on their faces,” she shared.
After graduating as a cum laude in 2004, she fulfilled her promise to her siblings -- she brought them to SM City North Edsa to play at the arcade and eat in Jollibee and McDonald’s. “I had never experienced these in my childhood,” she revealed. She was so happy that she could treat her family out and help them in their daily expenses so her parents would not have to succumb to 5’6 borrowing.
Leonila has taught at a private Catholic school, an international school and an elementary school in Navotas City. Four years ago, she was awarded a NAVOTAaS Teacher Scholarship for her Master of Arts in Education with specialization in Educational Management.
More than a profession, she considers teaching as a vocation as she gets to impart knowledge to children “who will be the next Henry Sy, the next Philippine President, the next talented artists, the next brave warriors”. She feels that she found gold when she became an SM scholar and is determined to be a treasure that can help other people fulfill their dreams, too.
Dreaming for others
At a very young age, Michelle Olvido’s family had already instilled in her the value of education as a defense against poverty. She applied for the SM Foundation College Scholarship because she knew her unemployed father and mother who was earning a minimum wage as a clerk would not be able sustain the education of both her and her brother.
After graduating Magna Cum Laude with a Leadership Award from Cebu Normal University, she immediately began working as a teacher in 2009. She ranked third in the Licensure Examination for Teachers. Last year, she finished her doctorate in Education with Major in Research Evaluation and received the award in Best Dissertation. She is currently a professor at her alma mater.
Michelle urges other scholars to keep on dreaming big and holding on to their dreams when the going gets tough. She encourages them to dream for others, too -- “these dreams get us out of bed in the morning even if we don’t feel like it.”
Just as she dreamed and was supported by SM, she strives to inspire others to pursue their goals. “The Foundation reminds me that we are blessed so we can be a blessing to others. I hope all those behind the Foundation, especially Tatang, knows that because of their gift of education, there is a teacher in Cebu who tries to contribute to quality public tertiary education in the country in her own small way. By trying to inspire my students to be the best that they can be, I pray that I am able to give back,” she earnestly expressed.
Paying it forward
Estifania Refuerzo-Chua graduated as an SM scholar with a Bachelor of Science in Information Science & Technology from Far Eastern University in 1997. The youngest in a brood of 10, Fannie was the first in their family to finish high school and college. With the goal of helping her parents and siblings, she studied diligently and graduated cum laude. Her first job was at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) before moving to MetLife Insurance in New York, where she has been with in the last 17 years. Currently the IT Director, she and her family are based in North Carolina.
Coming from a poor family, she confessed that she grew up shy, timid and with a low self-esteem. She worked hard and knew she had to keep on improving. Now, she is a confident, empowered woman in-charge of the application support group of MetLife’s corporate systems around the globe and a loving mother who enjoys traveling with her husband and children.
Fannie said she wouldn’t have achieved what she had without the opportunity given to her by SM Foundation. Every day, she is thankful for all the blessings and continues to pay it forward by providing for the needs of her family, supporting her parents, assisting her siblings in their businesses and helping her nieces and nephews finish school.
“Believe that you can achieve anything as nothing in this world is impossible” is a mantra she would like to share with fellow SM scholars.
Twelve-year old Sy only had ten centavos when he traveled from China to Manila. Now, SM is the country’s largest conglomerate with businesses in retail, property, banking and more.
For 60 years, SM has been serving millions of Filipinos. Henry Sy wants to particularly empower the youth and support them on their journey to success and out of poverty.
“If I can do it, the young people of today can do it, too.”
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About SM Foundation’s College Scholarship Program
Based on the principle of People Helping People, SM Foundation was founded on March 24, 1983 as it began to contribute to charitable institutions.
In 1993, Sy decided to establish the Foundation’s college scholarship program – he knew the government covered primary and secondary education but the biggest challenge was for one to finish tertiary education especially as most families still had to provide for its youngest members. The program supported 100 scholars on its first year.
Now on its 25th year, SM Foundation’s college scholarship has supported almost 4,000 scholars. SM scholars can choose among courses like Accountancy, Engineering, Information Technology and Education, among others. So the student can wholly focus on his or her studies and to ensure that their families do not need to worry about academic expenses, the Foundation covers full tuition and monthly allowance. During semestral breaks, the scholars can work at The SM Store to earn additional income. The scholars also get to attend fun-filled, enriching activities such as retreats, workshops, sports fests and the like, that mold them into well-rounded individuals.
Upon finishing their degrees, scholars participate in an exclusive job fair by the SM group. They are always welcome to join the company but are not obliged if they wish to spread their wings in a different firm here or abroad.