Their names are Alma, Estela, Maricar, Emma, Patrocinia — Spanish names given to Filipino girls long after the Philippines was a colony of Spain. They live on an island that produces sugar cane and they come from families of subsistence farmers and laborers earning the equivalent of two dollars a day. As girls marginalized by poverty and generations of neglect, they are expected to quit schooling after the elementary level, work in the sugar cane fields to help support their families, marry as teenagers, and bear several children in the midst of a bare-bones existence. But then I met them.
During my years of living and working in Boston, I have repeatedly returned to this island where I grew up. My Stanford education opened doors for academic and professional opportunities completely beyond the reach of these young Filipino girls who were destined to repeat the cycle of poverty that their mothers and grandmothers endured. When I first met them, I was deeply pained by the disparity between their lives and mine — and inspired by what I could do for them to move them out of the sugar cane fields into a brighter future.
When you educate a girl, you educate a village. This assertion by the United Nations rings true each time a young woman with learning potential is given the chance to go to school, to find work, and eventually to help lift herself and her family to a better place in life. For the past 20 years, I have made it my goal to select the brightest girl students at the village elementary school and find ways to help them get a high school education in the city ten kilometers away. Those with academic aptitude often finish a two-year college degree or become teachers at the local schools. In the developing world, even a high school education can be a passport to a better life.
Consider Alma, whose name means “soul.” The eldest of six children, she was malnourished from the inadequate food available to her large family supported by a small banana farm. She loved to read, looked me straight in the eye when she said, “I would like to go to school,” and studied under the light of a kerosene lamp. When I first met her, I immediately knew that her future was not to be a nameless worker in the sugar cane fields because her mind was too good to waste. So, with a few dollars from my personal funds and with the help of a church friend who contributed ten dollars a month for Alma’s education, she finished a two-year college degree that enabled her to work in Hong Kong and she eventually became instrumental in the education of her younger siblings. Presently, she is a vibrant Christian in the village where she continues to live as an educated woman.
Priscilla speaks with a Filipino student at Silliman University in the Philippines.
Why has the education of village girls in the Philippines become a part of my life's work? I cannot say I chose it; I suppose it chose me. In a deeper sense, it is widening the circle of grace and opportunity that has been a part of my personal history. I, too, started out like Alma — the eldest of eight children, yearning for opportunities to spread my wings as a student and to explore the life of the mind. My grandmother Cecilia — with only a meager formal education because girls of her generation were “not worth educating” — made sure that this happened, encouraging her granddaughters to excel and find their places in the sun through academic achievement. She showed up at all of our graduations, filled with pride in the next generation of women in the Lasmarias family.
Then there was Mrs. Luella Reeves of Canyon, Texas, who, 50 years ago, inspired her small Presbyterian church to provide my airfare to America so I could pursue graduate studies at Stanford University. A humble, retired teacher of modest means with a heart for missions, she supported several Asian students like me. Little did she and my grandmother know that their example would become a guiding light for the path I would take as an educator with a heart beating for Filipino girls in need of advocacy.
Priscilla and her husband with women scholars at Silliman University.
If the lines of our lives have fallen in pleasant places, to paraphrase the Psalmist, it is often because enough people cared about us and believed in our potential. We are not where we are solely on our own merit or our self-generated success. Ultimately, it is God’s blessing and benediction and the support of his people that sets our feet towards a favorable course. So the least we can do is share the gift.
If I, who grew up on a small island in the Philippines, had the privilege of coming to America for higher education and a professional life in Boston, it behooves me to remember that “to whom much is given, much is required.” If a young girl in my impoverished home country is consigned to a life of privation by accident of birth and geography, is it not my duty, or even my responsibility as a Christian, to speak on her behalf, to give voice to the voiceless?
“When you rise, lift someone up with you.” I cannot remember when I first heard this admonition, but it surely does make sense for those of us who have come from humble beginnings and have tasted success as transplanted Americans. For every one of us, there are hundreds, thousands of marginalized women who will never earn a fraction of our pay, enjoy the perks of higher education, own a library, or afford a smart phone.
Better still is the example of Jesus Christ who, in his divinity, showed compassion for the children and the village women with no credentials or marks of success. While he could not directly touch or heal or feed every person, he asked his disciples to do so in his name. Each disciple was equipped with a specific gift for ministry, and the women who were gospel-bearers had their own spheres of influence — Lydia as a business woman, Priscilla as a tent maker, Eunice as a caregiver, Dorcas as an artist.
I am an Asian American educator. I have been privileged with a Western education that has opened a world of academic opportunities for me. I am a follower of Jesus. These, among other reasons, impel me to touch the few lives of the less fortunate whose names I know — Alma, Emma, Patrocinia, and others. May they, in turn, remember to share the gift.
These are small beginnings, but small beginnings do matter. Like the mustard seed, they have a future. How does one educate a million village girls? One at a time. And perhaps, in the fullness of time, we will all rise together as God’s beloved children, connected by the sacred thread of a future that is made possible because someone cared.