From Buting Elementary School to Ivy League
“My mother is the reason I got to where I am,” Ma. Janel Consuelo Morales Perez said.
What they lacked in financial abundance, Janel’s mother Cristina made up for in attention. “I was privileged to have parents who really cared about our education,” Janel said.
While Janel’s father worked as a government employee, Cristina stayed in their home in Pasig, doting on her three children and inspiring their love for studying. “My mother was our first teacher. She was our Teodora Alonso. Growing up, my brother, sister and I were always doing math drills, vocabulary drills, essays. We had more homework from our mom. Talagang dikdikan,” Janel said. “But we played too. It was a happy childhood.”
Cristina’s efforts have paid off. All of her children wound up as scholars, with Janel, an International School Manila (ISM) scholar, is headed to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire on a full scholarship next school year.
Founded in 1769, Dartmouth College is one of the world’s best academic institutions topped Forbes Magazine’s 25 Best-Loved Colleges list last year. Getting into this Ivy League school is no small feat—as of 2017, its acceptance rate was just 8.7%. Zholl Tablante, senior assistant director of admissions, on Dartmouth College’s Admissions Team, said, “We always look for academic excellence, potential, and what the student will bring to the community by how they tell their story.”
Its list of notable alumni includes Olympic athletes, countless CEOs, journalists, U.S. Supreme Court judges, senators, diplomats, writers, scientists, Nobel Laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners. Dr. Seuss, Meryl Streep, Pillsbury Company founder Charles Alfred Pillsbury, Hallmark Cards Chairman of the Board Donald J. Hall Sr., Game of Thrones co-creator David Benioff, actress Mindy Kaling, TV queen Shonda Rhimes and poet Robert Frost all studied at Dartmouth.
Dartmouth isn’t the only Ivy League school that wanted to welcome Janel into its fold. Harvard University, Vanderbilt University and Yale-NUS College also offered her merit scholarships or financial aid. But ultimately, she chose Dartmouth. “The decision took an entire month. I listed the pros and cons of each school, I talked to alumni, my counselors, current students, I did a lot of research. I got to visit Harvard… but when I went to Dartmouth, I had this very paradoxical feeling of being at home and being way out of my comfort zone. The sun was shining but the air was cold. It was a dichotomy and I loved that. I love that there is so much opportunity for students to take hold of the curriculum and make it their own. I knew I would be challenged to be so much more, to look beyond, to experience much more than I thought possible.”
The 18-year-old joins Dartmouth as a King Scholar. “It’s a full ride and it’s in essence a challenge to make an impact on your home country,” said Janel. After graduating, students are encouraged to return to their home country to tackle issues of poverty.
The girl who studied at Buting Elementary School and used to do her math homework in the jeepney under the glow of strangers’ flashlights is ready to conquer the world. But she has an ultimate goal in mind: to make a difference in the Philippines. “And maybe the rest of the world, but the Philippines first,” Janel said. “I have to get myself to a place where I’d be more capable of making a direct impact on these people’s lives. I want to focus on poverty alleviation through human capital development.”
Janel says she gets her determination from her mom. “She’s very driven. She’s not afraid to say how it is. She’s very honest, blunt to a point, and I think it’s good. She keeps me grounded. She reminded me every day that I am a socio-economically less privileged girl and to never forget that despite the fact that I was living the life in ISM.”
Perhaps it’s because of her own history that she feels strongly about working to alleviate poverty. “I’ve sworn to God that I will use my education for the betterment of my country and my countrymen,” Janel said. “I never want to be complacent, I never want to just relax and sit back and relax, that’s for probably when I’m 80. ”
And she’s already started. In 2015, she co-founded The Buting Educational Support and Training Project (Project BEST) with her friend Andrew Cabangon. “ISM empowered me to do a lot of things I never ever dreamt of. Our team helps less privileged children have opportunities. We take them to ISM, they go swimming, wall-climbing. The main crux of our program, the Math, Science and English tutoring has helped quite a number of kids get into science high schools as well,” Janel said, adding. “There’s no excuse to not do anything. I want to see Filipinos helping other Filipinos instead of tearing each other down like we’ve been doing for a long time.”
Zholl was impressed with Janel’s application. “I saw a lot of characteristics in Janel that I saw in myself. I now know how my older brother feels. Janel is like the annoying little sister who you can’t help but love because she’s so smart, so driven and she’s going to accomplish so much.”
Strong Filipino moms
Janel’s story of strength and perseverance isn’t alien to him—in fact, he has quite a similar one. And their similarities don’t end there: they both have strong Filipina mothers who made the impossible possible.
Zholl, who was born in Angeles City, Pampanga, was hit by a tricycle when he was six years old. Doctors said he had an 80% chance of walking properly again.
His mother Lorna had separated from his father and was in the United States, trying to get their life there started. Zholl moved to California the following year and, on top of dealing with the pain in his legs, had to face the difficulties of adjusting to life a new country. “I grew up speaking Kapampangan and speaking another language, you never felt like you belonged. I was the only Asian kid among my classmates.”
Realizing that his single mom was struggling to support him, Zholl began working at an early age. “I was mowing lawns and washing cars when I was 10. At 13, I was selling newspapers. I worked for a clothing company and then at 18, I started working as a personal trainer.”
“One of the things I never forget is my mom having to work at Burger King,” Zholl said. “She showered me with food and not having the money to eat healthy food, I got big and bigger and bigger and people started treating me worse and worse.”
He had to endure being bullied. But when he was 16, he made a deal with his mom. “She used to smoke a lot of cigarettes. If she would quit smoking, I would lose weight. I lost about 100 pounds in about a year and then kept it off.”
Zholl’s determination showed not just in his decision to get his health back on track but in his passion for education. He taught himself Mandarin. He was a Fulbright Scholar and, after graduating with a degree in Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine, he went to Harvard to get his Master’s in Language and Literacy.
Today, he dedicates his time to helping young people achieve their dreams as a senior assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth. “In the past two years, there has been a rising trend in the amount of applicants from the Philippines and I am here to make sure that trend grows. I think the best part of the Philippines is its people, their hospitality, their generosity and their undeniable work ethic and these are the personal qualities that we really value at Dartmouth.”
Zholl is currently in the Philippines to hold information sessions. “There are many different ways that we have started to enhance the presence of Dartmouth in the Philippines. One is connecting with local guidance counselors. We have a guidance counselor program on Monday at the Manila Golf Club. We’ll educate counselors on what we’re looking for so they are better able to help guide their students. Another is doing a case study on holistic admissions at the U.S. Embassy with Education USA. We also have an info session at ISM on Tuesday at 6 PM. Parents and students are highly encouraged to attend to learn more about what Dartmouth has to offer. I bring to life what Dartmouth represents in hopes of inspiring students to do more research to see if it’s a fit for them.”
Janel will start her life in Dartmouth in August. “As a major nerd, of course I’m excited about studying. But I’m also excited to ski. I’ve never done it. It’s on my bucket list,” she said.
She thinks her story and the stories of other scholars headed to the world’s best schools shouldn’t be a surprise. “It’s just a testament to the fact that we Filipinos are capable. We’ve always been. We just have to recognize our potential and harness it.“
‘Do what you love’
Zholl said, “I think all Filipino scholars should know that, no matter how poor or rich, that an Ivy League education is not unattainable. If I was giving advice to a 14-year-old, I would just really encourage them to be a 14-year-old. Do the things that you love, do the things that you want to do, never lose that intellectual curiosity to learn things for fun. A trait that all Dartmouth students have is curiosity. And for all the kids that don’t think they’re going to be good enough because of numbers, a seemingly low test score can be a fantastic score when you consider the applicant’s home, community or high school. We read your applications holistically and in context. GPA and test scores are very important but what’s also just as important is the story and how the applicant tells it. To me, that’s the most exciting part about an application. Your story showcases the potential that you have to make an impact on whatever field of study you pursue. ”
Janel said, “Believe in your own agency. I never really thought that I’d be poor for the rest of my life. It’s probably ambitious but you can’t give up at the start. Believe in the possible. You can actually do if you just put your mind to it. It’s not just about working hard, it’s about working smart.”
For more informationm, check out https://apply.dartmouth.edu/register/Manila2018.
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