For Henry Sy Sr., the richest man in the Philippines according to Forbes Magazine, education provides the best return on investment.
Not only does the student benefit in terms of getting a better chance of landing a good job, the family does, too, because the scholar can help the entire household eventually break free from the chains of poverty.
The powerful multiplier effect of education drives the SM group, through SM Foundation, to continue investing heavily in education programs, which include scholarships as well as construction of school facilities in remote communities not usually reached by government agencies.
Of the estimated P200 million a year that the SM Foundation spends on various corporate social responsibility programs, about half goes to education, with the biggest portion going to scholarships.
According to Teresita Sy-Coson, the eldest child of the SM group founder, SM Foundation founded on March 24, 1983 spent its first years merely contributing to charitable institutions. Then in 1993, the SM Foundation started the college scholarship program upon the prodding of the retail taipan, who decided to focus resources on college scholarships because access to primary and secondary education is already covered by the state.
He believed that it is in completing tertiary education where the biggest challenge lies. And the taipan, who arrived in Manila when he was 12 years old with nothing to his name and knowing only Chinese, speaking not a word of Tagalog or English, is not one to shy away from a challenge.
Now on its 20th year, SM Foundation’s college scholarship program has helped more than 1,700 poor but deserving students earn a degree and find jobs here and abroad. Another 1,300 scholars now in 77 partner colleges and universities in Metro Manila, Baguio , Batangas, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, Lucena, Naga, Pampanga, Pangasinan, Rizal, Tarlac, Zambales, Bacolod, Cagayan de Oro, Cebu, Davao, General Santos City and Iloilo will soon be added to the list of graduates of such degrees as Computer Science, Information Technology, Computer Engineering, Civil Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Elementary Education.
In 2012, 46 percent of the 164 SM scholars graduated with honors—three graduated summa cum laude, 13 magna cum laude, 45 cum laude and 15 earned an academic distinction.
According to Carmen Linda M. Atayde, Executive Director of the Education Programs of SM Foundation, the group considers itself lucky to be able to absorb into the organization some of these graduates. She emphasizes, however, that the graduates are free to choose where they want to work after they graduate. The scholarship does not come with strings attached.
“They can go wherever they want and we are fortunate that a number of them have chosen to work with the SM group. What we are sure of is that they will not have difficulty finding a job. Many of them get a job offer as soon as they graduate,” says Atayde.
One of these graduates is Dolores Gigante, who earned a degree in BS Banking and Finance, magna cum laude, from New Era University. That she was able to rise up the ranks to become Treasury Manager of SM Prime Holdings Inc. she says she owes entirely to her scholarship.
“I can say that when you have a dream, what is impossible becomes possible. And I dreamt of one day having a different life from what I had, so by hook or by crook, I wanted to study,” says the 29-year-old Gigante, who still remembers how happy she felt when she got the call from SM saying that she won a scholarship.
Gigante focused almost all of her energies on her studies, knowing that it was her best chance at helping put food on the table for her siblings and also her parents who earned from odd jobs such as selling ice cream and delicacies like yema and pastillas. She says that she is not naturally gifted, but what she feels she lacked in talent, she more than made up for in hard work and dedication born out of the burning desire to change the family fortunes.
“I told myself that my life would change for the better and I believe that I am on my way to achieving my goal,” shares Gigante.
No more chips
From the small corner of her grandfather’s house, the family has been able to move to their own home. They are still renting, but at least they have a home they can already call their own. She adds that they can also now afford to buy groceries and even go to the movies. No more chips for lunch.
John Michael Lava, a magna cum laude graduate with a BS Accountancy degree from Far Eastern University, likewise says that his life changed when he got the news from SM Foundation that he would go to college for free. To think that he had thought that there was absolutely no chance for him to go to college, even if he had graduated with honors from Quezon City High School. His parents, who had no regular jobs, simply could not spare the expense with money already stretched as far as it could to feed, clothe and shelter a family of six. They were informal settlers and his father tried to make ends meet by trading vegetables. His mother helped by operating a small variety store from their home.
Lava says that he had already resigned himself to the possibility that he would have to stop school and start working. Thus, when he learned that he had won a scholarship, he was beside himself with joy. He went headlong into both academics and extracurricular activities in college, developing both his academics and his leadership skills as encouraged by SM Foundation. He took advantage of all learning opportunities, even outside the classrooms, and his efforts paid off.
Lava became a Jose Rizal Model Student of the Philippines, one of the 10 Outstanding Students of the Philippines, National President of the Habitat for Humanity Youth Movement and Regional President of the National Federation of Junior Philippines Institute of Accountants. Companies such as SM are wooing him into their fold, but he is dedicating his time to reviewing for the qualifying exam to become a Certified Public Accountant.
He says that after he takes the exam, he wants to join an accounting firm to gain valuable experience and learn more about his profession. Eventually, he wants to join a private firm, perhaps even SM, and put his entire family on the path to prosperity. But he says he will always find time to teach or share his knowledge as his way of paying it forward and helping others have similar opportunities to have a better life.
Jejomar Concepcion, who is in his third year at FEU taking up BS Accountancy, also wants to teach someday and end his career at the SM group, to whom he says he owes his big break.
Ticket to prosperity
Concepcion, the fourth of five siblings, says that he has known poverty his whole life. There were times when the family would just eat lugaw because they did not have money for anything else. Sometimes they would have P1 chips as their viand, just to add some salt to their rice. But even during the darkest days, he held on to the hope that he would find a way out and that education would be his ticket.
Concepcion says his mother learned about the SM scholarship program from her friend and she encouraged him to take the competitive exam.
The valedictorian of Camarin High School in Caloocan took the exam to please his mother and he considers it a great achievement to be named one of SM’s scholars. Not only is he getting free education, he also receives a modest allowance that he uses to help keep his siblings in school. Concepcion is running for summa cum laude and is eager to finish school.
“When I graduate, I want to work in a firm for the experience and I want to teach other students. I also want to finish my career at SM to give back,” he says.
Atayde says it is the stories of scholars like Gigante, Lava and Concepcion that give the SM Foundation that added impetus to pursue the scholarship program.
There are plans to increase the number of scholars under the SM group’s wing, which is one reason why the SM group is bent on growing its income year after year.
The more income it earns, the more it can set aside for making scholars’ dreams come true.