Just how vital to a poor family is the scholarship program of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST)? Dr. Nestor Gonzales Acala, 31, a three-time DOST scholar, said that it breaks the chain of poverty in every family.
He knows what he’s talking about. As a boy growing up in Barangay Lingasad, Polanco municipality of Zamboanga del Norte province, he had to battle scarcity from the get-go.
Whenever he came home from school, there wasn’t enough to eat because there were 11 of them — including his parents — in the family. As a result, he had to resort to climbing coconut trees, picking the nuts off them, and eating them to just to get by, he told Newsbytes.PH.
But those were the good days. On bad days, which were often, practically the whole family slept hungry in a dilapidated house that had no access to electricity and water.
In 1998, with the help of his teachers and classmates, he was able to finish his primary studies in Lingasad Elementary School (LES). In 2002, he finished his secondary education at Polanco National High School (PNHS).
“In high school, Mrs. Gina Lagata, my math teacher, was among those who helped me the most,” he said. “I learned so much from her and she was the one who influenced me to pursue math in college.”
Besides giving him lunch, the teacher also gave him money for his school projects. “She was just like my mother,” Acala said.
Another teacher, Ms. Christina Gumapon, encouraged him to take the DOST Science and Technology Examination while her husband Frank of the Philippine Information Agency (PIA) submitted to DOST provincial office his scholarship application.
Luckily, he passed the DOST scholarship exam, as well as the college entrance tests of the University of the Philippines in Diliman and the Mindanao State University in Marawi City.
But going to Diliman was not a viable option as it was too far. Enrolling at MSU also posed a problem as he had no money to travel to Marawi, even if it was just a few towns away from his hometown. A kindhearted teacher, however, learned of his plight and gave him a small amount so he can go to Marawi.
Things slowly changed after his graduation in 2006 from the MSU main campus in Marawi City, Lanao del Sur.
It was no ordinary graduation. After all, he emerged as the university’s seventh summa cum laude graduate with a grade of 1.19 in Bachelor of Science in Mathematics.
Despite this recognition, his parents — Alberto Benitez and Maria Gonzales Acala — almost weren’t able to make it to the ceremonies. They had no money for transportation. His father had to sell several mahogany trees he was to use for repairing their house.
“When my name was called, my parents were surprised because everyone clapped and many stood. They did not understand what a summa cum laude is. I told my parents that it is like first honor,” Acala said. “My father and mother cried.”
In 2007, with just 18 units in education, he took the Licensure Examination for Teachers (LET). He placed seventh among the Top 10 passers. He applied for and landed a teaching position at MSU.
Still on a DOST scholarship, he took his Masters of Science also in MSU and graduated in 2008. He then studied for a Doctorate in Philosophy (Ph.D.) at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, Quezon City, which he finished in 2014.
From the time he took his master’s until he finished his doctorate, he was supporting the education of his siblings and a nephew using his scholarship stipend — the start of the DOST scholarship’s multiplier effect on his family.
His nephew, Christopher Acala, finished Bachelor of Science in Agronomy; his youngest sibling Alvin is about to graduate with a degree in Electrical Engineering; his other siblings finished high school but quit as they got married after graduation.
He was also able to build a modest house for his parents where he grew up and lived in Barangay Lingasad worth about P100,000, now with water and electricity, helped along by a loan he made.
His father passed away in April 2017, but not without seeing his success.
Until his graduation, his family and relatives never had anyone who graduated from college. None of his siblings made it to high school; some only reached Grade 1 and Grade 2 because of dire poverty.
“I was the first one to finish college in our family in 2006,” he said. “None of my cousins were able to do the same.”
Breaking the poverty cycle
During the recent 30th anniversary of the DOST’s Science Education Institute (SEI), Acala was one of the speakers, narrating his struggles inside a packed room at Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) in Pasay City.
“Life was really hard before,” he said in an interview after the event. “The DOST scholarship made me what I am today.”
The former DOST scholar said the hardship motivated him to study hard because he wanted to change their abject condition. “I did not want to remain just like that because I saw in my siblings, in my parents the difficulties we went through.”
“My father only reached Grade 4, my mother is illiterate and can’t read or write. Thus, in my assignments in school, I was unable to ask them for help unlike other parents (who help their children in their school homework). So, my hardships became the instrument for me to study harder,” he said.
He is obviously proud of his accomplishment. He is now a member of the faculty of Mathematics Department of MSU.
“I could have worked somewhere, not in Marawi. But while I was studying, I saw the other students like me. Now that I am a faculty member, again I see the students and see my former life in them,” he said.
Acala said it pains him to think that there are many students who are not able to study because they have nothing.
He expressed hope that the students in Marawi City, particularly with what happened (referring to the Maute/Abu Sayyaf siege of the city that started on May 23) could have the same opportunity. “I hope they will be given opportunity like what I had because there are many bright students there waiting to be discovered and assisted,” he said.
Dr. Josette Biyo, director of SEI, made Acala a model for the scholarship program from among over 40,000 scholar graduates of the DOST. Acala became the subject of a short movie shown during the event.
The SEI’s 30th anniversary highlighted the thousands of lives that were changed by the scholarship program and the millions of lives impact by the work of our scholar graduates, she said.
“SEI is molding a culture of science in the country,” Biyo added. “Of the Philippines 1,650 municipalities, 95 percent or 1,567 now have DOST scholars. We hope to reach the remaining 83 municipalities and those in high-risk areas without scholars.”
For 2017, she said the DOST-SEI is supporting over 23,000 scholars nationwide: 19,000 undergraduates; 3,000 masters; and 1,000 doctorate.
Biyo said that under the leadership of DOST secretary Fortunato T. de la Pena, the scholars’ slots will be doubled in 2018 from 4,000 to 8,000 new slots; 700 masters slots to 1,400; and 250 doctorate slots to 700 slots.
She expressed confidence the Philippines will be able to attain the United Nations recommendations for every country to have at least 380 researchers, scientists, and engineers (RSE) per one million population to attain sustainable growth.
“Currently, we are at 270 researchers, scientists, and engineers for our population, with a gap of 110. Through our scholarship program we hope to fill this gap of 110 RSE per million population within the next five years,” said Biyo.