slums to scholarships
I grew up in the slums of Cavite and Manila in the Philippines. My parents worked odd jobs to provide for their five children. When I was 8, they were both “magbobote”: pedalling from house to house on bicycles with sidecars attached, collecting metals and recyclables to sell on to junk shops. At one point, my mother washed other people’s clothes, while my father worked in construction. My paternal grandmother, a public school teacher for 40 years, would fill the financial gap whenever she could.
When I was 11, my mother left to work as a domestic helper in Singapore. She worked there for the next decade, coming back only for a few weeks per year in between contracts. At that time, my father worked putting up electricity poles in the nearby provinces. He would leave us kids to take care of ourselves during the week. My youngest sister was 4 years old. We cooked on a fire that my brother was tasked with starting. We washed our clothes by hand and ironed them for school. School was only half a day, so my siblings and I alternately took care of the youngest so the rest could go to school. We had no hobbies. There was no concept of holidays.
I realized at an early age that we were poor. And as the eldest, I realized that I would be the first to have an opportunity to change our situation. My parents, although without college degrees themselves, instilled in us the value of education. From primary to high school, I tried my best to finish every school year with honours – ranking between first to fifth in the class.
Graduating with relatively good grades paid off. In 2004, I was accepted into the national university, the University of the Philippines, in the flagship campus at Diliman, Quezon City. I studied Computer Science. It seemed like a timely course. Information technology was booming even in developing countries, so I was sure to get a job after graduation.
My parents couldn’t pay my university fees. But a friend’s mother helped me apply for a scholarship funded by the Department of Science and Technology’s Science Education Institute. I took the five hour exam and passed. The monthly scholarship stipend, combined with my mother’s remittances from Singapore and part-time jobs helped me survive my four years in UP Diliman.
In the financial world, 2008 is associated with the global recession. For my family, it was the start of a great new chapter. I received my bachelor’s degree in March and by 1st of April, I was part of the workforce as an associate software engineer. I was 21. For the first time in our lives, my family had a decent stable income. An amount my parents combined could not have earned before. We moved from a one-window ~15 sq metre home beside a basketball court to our first apartment. It was small, less than 30 sq metres, but it had 2 bedrooms and a terrace, and most importantly – running water from a tap. The first appliance I bought after getting a job was a refrigerator.
Life started to get better. We were making ends meet and were no longer just ‘surviving’. But for me it was just the beginning. The next goal was to make sure my siblings also got bachelor’s degrees. The most we could afford for my younger brother was a vocational school where he studied electrical technology. It was clear, however, that even with this certificate he wouldn’t find a professional job. My younger sisters were about to finish high school, but my Philippine salary was not enough to send them all to university.
Three years after graduation, I took a job with a French bank in Singapore. I was not happy to leave the country and my family, but this was the only way to send my younger siblings to college. In March 2011, I boarded my first plane and moved to a new country. By May of the same year, my brother and a sister enrolled in the school where they would eventually get their degrees. A few years later, my family moved to the first house under our name – my name – with three bedrooms and a separate kitchen and living room. Hopefully, my youngest sister will graduate college in April 2019.
I worked at two investment banks and an oil company in Singapore as a Business Intelligence developer. In 2015, I was invited to apply for a job in Switzerland at an international institution. I went through a series of interviews, and was soon planning to move again. This time, to a new continent, with four seasons, a completely different culture and an array of other differences from the world I knew before.
Founding PeSSA is something I have wanted to do for a long time, but didn’t know how. As a product of the the Philippines’ public school system, I saw with my own eyes how much was missing. One sunny day in Basel I had an idea about how I could finally make it happen, even as an individual far away from home. I would raise money to help educate more Filipino youth by setting up a foundation and selling posters and calendars using my own photographs. My desire to take pictures started at my first job in a Japanese camera manufacturer and had been useful during my travels. I picked my favourite shots to share with you all.
I have been fortunate to see a bit of the world. My favourite places, however, are still the beautiful islands of the Philippines. The white sand beaches, crystal clear water and perfectly blue sky simply make coming back home something to look forward to. A better quality of life – among other things my family can now enjoy – are the result of one person receiving a university education. My degree changed my life and my family’s. Hopefully it can also change the next generation’s.
Vanessa Rose Castro