MANILA - Breakfast is the most important meal of the day because, according to experts, it serves as fuel that gives people energy for a full day's work.
But Iah Seraspi, who came from a poor family in Romblon, rarely goes to school with a decent meal.
"It was really hard. During my elementary days, my meal consists only of little rice sprinkled with salt," she said in Filipino in an exclusive interview with ABS-CBN News. "When I was in high school, I ate pennyworth junk food with rice, just so my meal has taste."
She added that they already considered it a luxury to eat instant noodles—common items in relief good packs sent to disaster victims.
"My siblings and I even share instant noodles when we have one," said Seraspi.
She had to rely to some of her friends and schoolmates who share their meals with her.
That's why a lot of people who have read Seraspi's story on social media were left scratching their heads—amazed and puzzled—on how she has managed to place second in the nationwide Licensure Exam for Teachers (LET).
Out of 81,463 hopefuls who took the LET for secondary teachers, Seraspi placed second with a score of 90 percent, just a few decimal digits away from the top passer from Davao City who got 90.20 percent.
"I accepted my situation—that if I just kept on complaining, nothing would ever change, we will remain poor." she said. "Instead of complaining, I viewed poverty as a self-imposed challenge."
Seraspi is the eldest daughter of a fisherman and a housewife in the small town of Looc.
"My father gets only P20 - P50 a day (about one dollar a day) from fishing. If he goes home with a hundred pesos, it means he had a good catch, which does not happen very often," she said, adding that her father merely rents the boat he uses for fishing.
On top of going to school without a decent meal, Seraspi also returns to a home without electric power, and she literally burns the midnight oil in order for her to study.
The Seraspis only got to have power in their house last year, with the help of the Esquejo family, who would become a big part of Iah's success story
Asked what was going on in her mind when she thought about her condition at such a young age, she answered: "I knew I had to educate myself so I can find a decent job and help my family get out of poverty."
Seraspi graduated high school as the batch valedictorian. Her problem that time, however, was how to pursue a college education.
A GLIMMER OF HOPE
Seraspi’s sheer determination wouldn't go to waste as one of her teachers noticed her skills and passion to pursue her dreams.
This teacher told a friend, Kristoffer Esquejo, whose family runs the Ernesto Esquejo Scholarship Foundation, hoping he could help Seraspi pursue a college degree.
Esquejo told his elder sister, Debbie, about Seraspi.
"End of April 2011, we were in Looc, our province, for our vacation. My youngest brother told me na may potential daw ang bata na ipapakilala niya sa akin. Baka di raw maka-college dahil very poor, but she is smart." Debbie told ABS-CBN News.
"That time may lists na kami ng mga scholars namin sa high school, college at TESDA," she added. "Upon seeing her, napag-isip ako."
With just one look, Debbie said she knew how bad Seraspi wanted to pursue her dreams.
"May kaunting scholarship for her being the valedictorian but it can't sustain, di ba," she said. "Alam mo naman ang government: kahit free tuition pa, how about 'yung daily expenses and boarding house, projects."
"I was looking at her eyes, nandoon na ang desire to study," she added. "Nakita ko talaga 'yung desire niya kaya sabi ko, 'I will help you. Ang kapalit lang mag-aral ka nang mabuti para makatapos. Get a job and help your family. I don't expect anything from you, 'yun lang.’"
One can only imagine how happy Seraspi was at that time, finally seeing a glimmer of hope from the dark pits of poverty.
She took Bachelor of Science in Education (BSED) with a major in Biological Science at Romblon State University.
"She hugged me," recalled Debbie. "I asked if may mga gamit na siya for college kasi nga malayo din 'yung university sa amin. Kaya after namin kumain, I accompanied her sa store and bought all her needs."
"Nagka-instant sister ako," she added.
During college, Seraspi had to stay in a boarding house in the town of Odiongan, away from her family.
It was also at this time where she found out that she really wanted to be a teacher.
As a scholar of the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), Seraspi only gets P15,000 per semester—around P3,000 a month all for tuition, miscellaneous fees, food, boarding house, books and projects.
This is why Seraspi said the financial support from the Esquejos really helped her big time.
The Esquejos, a few years later, would be surprised to know that the great grandmother of Seraspi was a tenant of their grandmother.
"It was like, maybe two or three years after... Wala akong kaalam-alam. Na-shock nga ako," said Debbie.
Debbie was already based in the United States at that time and said that whenever Seraspi needed money, she would tell her to go her brother, Rodom, to get money.
"Lagi-lagi kami nag-cha-chat. ‘Pag may mga projects siya I told her to go to Rodom to get extra P500 or P1,000, depende sa need niya," she said.
IAH'S COLLEGE LIFE
In college, Seraspi never bought books for herself.
"I just bought one book because it was required," she said.
Otherwise, Seraspi said she depended on her classmates who would lend her books.
Asked how she managed to perform well even without her own books, and surprisingly, even without taking down notes during classes, Seraspi said: "I discovered my learning method early."
She explained that when she was in high school and she did not have enough money to buy books and notebooks, she developed her listening and comprehension skills pretty well.
"I just listen to my teachers and read from borrowed books," she said.
Her learning method proved to be effective as she graduated cum laude in 2015.
THE ROAD TO TOP 2
When Seraspi finished college, the first Carl Balita Review Center was opened in Romblon.
She continued staying in the boarding house while the Esquejos continued to support her financially.
Sensing she is getting nearer and nearer to getting a hold of her dream, Seraspi studied tirelessly.
"My schedule in the review center was 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. I would go home and continue reading my review materials. I would sleep from 2 a.m. until around 4 a.m. and read again the whole day."
After the extensive review, bringing along hope and a little prayer with her, she took the LET for the first time.
Seraspi said she never dreamed of becoming top 2 nationwide, though admittedly, she was praying she could enter the top 10.
Just a few days before the release of LET results, Seraspi admitted that her confidence fell.
"I was thinking, is it really possible to compete with students from the prestigious schools?"
Despite this, Seraspi kept on praying.
"I had a bargain with God. I promised Him something," she said.
A BEAUTIFUL SURPRISE
Seraspi was with her parents during a solemn church activity when Carl Balita of the Carl Balita Review Center called her to bring her the good news: she placed second in the LET.
"I was beside my parents. We were attending 'Jesus Reigns.' That's why we couldn't shout for joy even if we really wanted to," she shared. "My parents cried and hugged me."
The good news would eventually reach the Esquejos, particularly Debbie who was in the U.S.
"I was here at work, I am a nurse here working night shift. My brother Rodom texted me: 'Sis Iah got 2nd place sa board exam," Debbie recalled.
"Napaupo ako at napatingin sa taas and got teary-eyed," she added.
Seraspi is the third LET topnotcher produced by the Romblon State University, and the 101st topnotcher produced by the Carl Balita Review Center.
LOOKING BACK, MOVING FORWARD
The fire to learn is still very alive in Seraspi as she plans to continue her masters and doctoral degrees.
"Romblon State University already offered a scholarship. I would be studying for free," she said.
While studying, Seraspi will be teaching at her alma mater and will also serve as a national reviewer at the Carl Balita Review Center as a way of giving back.
When she gets her first paycheck, Seraspi said her first project is to renovate their house and financially support her younger sibling's education.
Looking back, Seraspi said it was those lessons that she did not learn from the books that she would always remember.
"I proved that poverty is never a hindrance to success," she said. "When you commit yourself to an ambitious goal and sacrifice, dreams would eventually come true.
Asked for advice for other students who are facing the same struggle, she said: "Never give up just because you're poor. I still believe that life is fair. Just look at poverty as a challenge to improve oneself and get out of the bad situation."
Seraspi also said in a speech which had already gone viral on social media that one shouldn't be discouraged because he or she is studying in a state university, and not in the big schools in Manila.
Debbie, meanwhile, also shared the same lessons Seraspi learned.
"The keys to success: hard work, dedication, perseverance, willingness to be different from anyone. If you came from a poor family don't think and act like you will be poor forever and feel sorry for yourself," she said.
"God helps those who help themselves!" she added.
In a survey conducted in November 2015 by the Social Weather Stations (SWS), a total of 59 percent of registered voters in the Philippines identify themselves as poor.
For Luzon, where Seraspi's province is located, 54 percent of voters say they are poor while the remaining 46 percent is split evenly among "not poor" and "on the line."
LET, Iah Seraspi, Romblon, Education, Carl Balita, Debbie Esquejo, poverty, update feed