Text by Terence Repelente
Images by Charlene Coronel
Ysabella Santiago first heard of Miriam College toward the end of her gradeschool years, when their graduation speaker, an alumnus of her elementary school, spoke about college. For the first time, she was contemplating about goals, purpose, expanding one’s horizon, going for something that was out of the norm. She was moved and stimulated, burning with inspiration for her future education, she was convinced that Miriam was the dream school. And talking to her now, in an exclusive interview with the Manila Bulletin, fresh out of the Miriam STEM scholarship system, salutatorian Ysabella shares how she persevered and never looked back.
At first, however, she was afraid of telling her parents that she wanted to leave home, leave her current educational status, which was a full scholarship in a school in her hometown Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija, and rent a dorm in Manila at the age of 13, just so she could study at Miriam. Ysabella made a promise to herself that if she made first honor for Grade 7, it was a sign she should take the entrance exam at Miriam. “I told my parents that if and only if I became the first of honor of my batch in Grade 7, then I would take the entrance exam in Miriam,” she recalls. “It really wasn’t something that was practical to pursue. Because it’s very expensive. Not just the living expenses in Manila, but also the cost of the actual education at Miriam.”
Ysabella grew up in a family-oriented and traditional home. Her grandmother never finished grade school, her grandfather was supposed to go to college in Manila but never did, because of his responsibilities to his family. “They had to sacrifice their own education for us, my parents, and us their grandchildren. As a child, I was always aware of that. So, instead of daydreaming during my free time in the province, I was already focused on what to do in the future,” she says. “At an early age, I was already thinking of my career. Because I want to give my family more resources. I want them to experience the things they couldn’t.”
Growing up in rural Cabanatuan, Ysabella was exposed to poverty in the countryside, she would see kids of her age and even younger in their neighborhood suffering from malnutrition and other sickness. “When I saw and realize this situation in my hometown, I said I wanted to be a doctor and help them.” she says. “I was fortunate enough to have parents and grandparents taking care of me, and we had the capacity to afford hospital bills. But these people really need help. I wanted not only to help my family, but other families, too.”
When Ysabella took the entrance exam she said to herself that she would already consider it a success if she passed. She wasn’t really expecting a full scholarship. “My parents asked if they could offer us even just financial aid, but initially they didn’t offer any form of scholarship unless you were a graduate of their middle school,” she said. “I was shattered, but still fulfilled and thankful that I at least passed the entrance exam.”
Months after the entrance exam Miriam called Ysabella’s parents and informed them that she was a candidate for STEM scholarship, a four- year merit scholarship in Miriam. “They said they picked five transferees from the people who took the entrance exams, which they would shortlist into three after a series of interviews,” she says. “To my surprise, I was interviewed by Dr. Edizon Fermin, the former principal and currently the director for innovation development. The one who spoke during our elementary graduation, the very same person who inspired me to push for Miriam. Everything came full circle.”
“That interview was one of the proudest moments in my life. I remember just crying at Sir Fermin’s office. I didn’t know I had it in me to have that kind of opportunity,” she says. “Then they told us that they would text my parents after two weeks to finalize the decisions on who, among the five, would get the merit scholarship.”
Two weeks passed, still no word from the admissions office. “I already had the mindset that I wouldn’t get accepted. But at least I tried, and at least I was given the opportunity,” she says. “The schoolyear was approaching, so I had to enroll at my school in Cabanatuan, and I was elected as the grade 8 batch representative of our school. On our first day of classes, Miriam called, they asked my parents why they never confirmed for the scholarship. It turned out, I got the scholarship, and for some reason we never received the letter of acceptance.”
The next days, after receiving the good news, the Santiago household was filled with debates, whether or not the 13-year-old Ysabelle was going to be sent to Manila and live alone for the first time to pursue her studies. Everyone had their opinion, which contradicted each other, but for Ysabelle, Miriam was a dream, and she had no other plans but to chase it.
“I was so conflicted. I was hearing both sides. I thought the scholarship was already the ticket to enter Miriam, but I realized there were so many things to consider. I had this fear of unpreparedness,” she says. “I was 13, but I had to make a ‘now or never’ decision. My dad spoke to me, he told me: ‘life doesn’t begin inside your comfort zone.’ And I just remember being affirmed by his statement and, as I recall it now, he was right. The challenge of being in a new place, a new environment, challenged me and made me better.”
Ysabella got into Miriam with an initial goal to retain the scholarship. At first she grew envious of her classmates, because for them they just had to pass, but she had to maintain a grade, be consistent or else all her sacrifices will go to waste. “But I eventually understood what was at stake. I wish I had their lives, but I just persevered and thought of everything I’d sacrificed.”
During her first months at Miriam, Ysabella had a hard time adjusting to life in Manila, as everything was 10 times faster. The culture was different. And the grading system, much harder. “My first months in Miriam was truly a challenge, but I had no other choice but to adapt,” she says. “I didn’t want my parents to worry, and I don’t want them to regret their decision of letting me study and live far away from them. Thankfully I adjusted after three months.”
Although it was hard, Ysabella saw her growth and development both a student and a person at Miriam and its STEM system. It is also here where she was shaped as a woman. “Back then I was really shy and timid, but then now I am more confident of myself, which is not just because of the education, but also the community,” she says. “Miriam, being an all-girls school, really empowered me as a woman. Here, everybody wanted to be out of the norm. I have friends who want to be astrophysicists and astronauts. No one’s afraid of voicing their opinions, because the staff and teachers treat everyone equally. They see us as people who can change the world. Miriam definitely molded us as leaders of the future. I am really proud to be a product of Miriam’s STEM scholarship.”
Miriam, through its social action activities, also taught Ysabella to always strive for something bigger, something higher. “The school made me a leader. It made me yearn to have a higher position, which I can use to help others,” she says. “Someday, I want to lead a community of medical missionaries, and serve the people in far flung communities. That’s my ultimate goal right now. After giving back to my family, my endgame is to do service for others.”
For Ysabella, the meaning of education, as taught to her by Miriam, was to learn as much as you can when you’re young, utilize your privilege of being able to learn, and after you’re done learning, serve those who do not have the same privilege as you, which is the very same value that founded Miriam as an institution.
Ysabella is currently exploring a sea of options. But right now, she is most attracted to taking up Health Science (Public Science) at the Ateneo de Manila University, reach her dream of becoming a pediatric neuro surgeon, and ultimately fulfill her goal of dedicating her life to serve the people and give back to unprivileged communities—the Miriam way.