Former International School Manila (ISM) and Harvard University scholar Rose Sagun turns sentimental looking back at her and her family’s journey over the past decades. Some would have thought it unlikely for someone like her to enjoy the best education in the most prestigious schools. She’s the daughter of a humble fruit vendor, a single mother who used to live in the slums of Tondo. How can they afford the best schools?
But Rose, who just finished her Masters in International Education Policy at Harvard, says the trajectory of her life changed because of two things. “The unblinking bravery of the women who raised me and my merit scholarship to an international education at 11 years of age.”
A tale of three women
The two women Rose is talking about are her mother, Luz Sagun, and her lola Bebiana Sajonia. Her grandmother, a native of Panay, only reached fifth grade. She was also a fruit vendor. “At the crack of dawn, she would walk for miles across stretches of farmlands, looking for new harvest,” Rose says, recalling what she was told. “[Lola] would negotiate with farmers for their produce and bring the harvest to the nearest town.”
Rose’s mother, the fifth among nine children, grew up in this kind of life. She would recount to Rose the joy she’d feel hauling her harvest over the roof of a jeepney, going to the bayan at daybreak, selling fruits the entire day, then heading home with just enough to put food on the table.
“What struck me with this memory is how my mother remembers it: it was not about what she didn’t have; it was about what she gained,” Rose tells ANCX. Through this experience, her mother learned the value of hard work and also nurtured her entrepreneurial skills.
Her mother eventually earned a scholarship to study at the nearby college and worked at the library to earn extra money. As soon as she graduated, she got on a one-way boat to Manila to start a new life. She arrived in Manila in the ‘60s.
Rose came into her mother’s life in 1986. “My mom persevered, working up to three jobs at times, to make sure I didn’t grow up in the same slums where she lived,” says Rose. Her mother also made sure to save her hard-earned P500 at the end of every month so Rose could go to the bookstore and buy books to read. “I didn’t have much growing up, but I had a treasure trove of books, my most prized possessions, and I felt I had wealth because of them.”
Easter Sunday of 1998 will forever be etched in Rose’s memory. It was the day her mother chanced upon an ad from ISM. It was an announcement for its Philippine scholarship program. At 11 years old, Rose did not know what a full scholarship to one of the most selective international schools in the region meant. She was initially hesitant to apply for an IS scholarship, as that would mean leaving her friends in the elementary school in Quezon City she was enrolled in.
“What convinced me to apply was my mother’s call to challenge,” she recalls. “She convinced me that the process was more important than the destination: I applied to the program because I wanted to experience what it would be like to take an international standardized exam. I was curious to see what I knew, but more importantly, what I did not know yet.”
What Rose didn’t know then was that exam would actually change her life. “After going through the application process, whatever hesitation in me has dissipated,” she says.
She still recalls her amazement seeing her new school for the first time. “I could not believe that a school like this could even exist! How could a school have three gyms, a tennis court, and two swimming pools? How could classrooms be air-conditioned? Even the school buses looked like they came straight out of a Hollywood movie! I knew then and there I wanted the scholarship, and I am thankful to have received it.”
Rose says her ISM days—all seven years of them—were the best years of her childhood. “ISM enabled me to see how vast the world was and how far-reaching my potential was,” she shares. Rose is grateful for the world-class teachers and the school’s vast collection of books and resources. She also gained lifelong friends from different parts of the world. “My ISM years felt like moving to the fast lane of life, and world after world appeared before my eyes,” she says.
Paying it forward
A bigger world has beckoned since. After spending seven years at ISM, Rose went to UP Diliman to earn her business degree; she graduated with honors. After gaining some work experience, she studied at Harvard via a scholarship and obtained her Master’s degree in International Education Policy. During her stint there, she co-authored the book “Empowering Teachers to Build a Better World” with Harvard Professor Fernando Reimers and some of her fellow classmates.
This multi-faceted lady also worked on a project commissioned by the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning (Harvard VPAL). The said initiative promotes more women in leadership roles and creates a more inclusive, equitable environment in the business world.
Rose was also able to present a large-scale project on design thinking for 400 schools at the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) conference, the largest and oldest society on global education in the world in San Francisco.
Now in her 30s, Rose works at The Education Commission, which has a global initiative of ensuring inclusive and quality education for all. The members of the Commission include current and former heads of state and government, government ministers, five Nobel laureates, and leaders in the fields of education, business, economics, development, health, and security. “My work on High Touch High Tech specifically focuses on the ways in which artificial intelligence and transformations in teaching and learning can unlock personalized learning for all, especially for learners who are furthest behind,” she says.
Looking back at the past three decades of her life, Rose realized she got the most important inheritance from her grandmother and mother. “It’s not an Ivy League diploma. It’s more than that,” she says. “It is the sheer, undeniable power of faith. And that same unyielding faith, that spanned exactly 100 years since my grandmother’s birth, travelled from the rice paddies of Panay to the slums of Tondo to finally at Harvard.”
[The International School Manila’s Philippine Scholarship application search for ISM’s Class of 2027 Filipino Scholars is now open for the school year 2022-2023. Deadline for submissions is on January 10, 2022 (Monday).For more information on qualifications and requirements, visit: www.ismanila.org/our-community/scholarships-at-ism]