Published in Manila Standard Today

Danilo and Marissa Salonga are a picture of pride as they witness their daughter Riza graduate from Sta. Catalina College. Where they are from – being members of a tribal community in the Kinaragan Mountains in Limay, Bataan – receiving proper education much less graduating from college is uncommon. In fact, Riza, 20, is only the second one from their family and the third Aeta from Kinaragan to ever earn a college diploma.

Riza finished with a degree in Elementary Education major in Religious Education, following in the footsteps of her sister who studied to become a nurse. Turning a little sentimental, she looks back on how her father, a former tribal chieftain and currently the IP Mandatory Representative in the Sangguniang Panlalawigan ng Bataan, influencedher to finish school and to never give up.

“Nung time na nahihirapan na po akong mag-aral, parang gusto ko na lang din sa bahay at tumulong na lang . Si tatay ko po ang nag-aangat sa akin talaga na makapagtapos (There were times when I just wanted to come home to Limay. My father was always there to encourage me),” she shares.

She also used her father’s own hardships as an inspiration to chart her own path. “Kapag naiisip ko na tumulong na lang sa bahay, lagi niya pinapaalala sa amin yung naranasan niya na ayaw niyang iparanas sa amin kaya kailangan namin magtapos. Yun po ang tumatak sa isip ko (Whenever I thought about returning home, my father would insist that I finish school because he does not want us to experience the hardships he went through. His words made an impact on me)” she adds.

Right around the time when Riza’s father left his post as tribal chieftain, an unexpected blessing came their way in the form of a scholarship from Petron Corporation.

“Second year college po ako nung naging scholar ako ng Petron. Proud po ako na maging scholar nila dahil hindi lamang pera ang naitutulong nila sa akin, kung hindi natulungan din po nila ako na magpursige (I was in third year college when I became a Petron scholar, which I am proud of. It’s not just financial assistance that they provide.

They also encouraged me to be unwavering in my studies),” she says as she expresses her gratitude for having this opportunity.

Through the Petron scholarship, Riza’s parents were eased off the pressure of having to pay for her tuition. Her journey was far from easy but with the much-needed support, she managed to persevere and make her parents proud.

Armed with a new hope and a new story to tell, Riza is now ready to pay back and inspire others especially whose families cannot support their education. “Sa pamamagitan po ng pag-graduate ko sa tulong ng scholarship, puwede ko pong maimpluwensiyahan ang ibang kabataan sa amin na makapagtapos din… na may pag-asa pa at mayroong mga handang tumulong (Through the scholarship program of Petron, I am now in a position to influence the youth in my community to also pursue college education. I want them to know that there is hope because there are those who are willing to help.).”

Upon graduating from college last April, Riza returned to her hometown in Kinaragan. And this coming school year, she begins her work as a Christian Living teacher at the San Sebastian School in Muñoz, Nueva Ecija. The former Petron scholar is now ready
to spread the same HOPE that was once fortunate enough to receive.