No Pressure, No Diamonds: How Gemma Achieved Her Dream of Education

GemmaLet me take you to the mountains with this story of a woman and her firm resolve to provide a better life for herself and an inspiration for her own tribe.

She was *Gemma Dandana Tolentino, a member of the Subanon Tribe in Zamboanga del Norte. She was my friend and a former colleague at TVI Resource Development Philippines Inc., a Canadian mining company where I worked from 2006-2010. Currently, she is a licensed Forester of TVI’s Environment Department.

Gemma walked 8 kilometers every day from her house to school, determined to finish her elementary and high school studies. Completing a high school education was not a common thing in her community. Access to schools, as well as access to other social services, was difficult for people in hometown then because of “poverty”. A college degree was next to impossible. But Gemma was determined to prove to her fellow villagers that earning a college degree was attainable even if you came from the mountains.

Completing a college degree would make Gemma so proud she would consider it her greatest accomplishment in life. Why not? During those times, the ratio of college professionals to the non-college graduates in her community in the Municipality of Siocon was 2:10.

The town of Siocon where Gemma hailed was inaccessible to public transportation some ten or twenty years ago. To travel to and from Zamboanga City, one had to take a common mode of transportation – the habal-habal or a modified single motorcycle. One could also ride a boat to go to Zamboanga City, but this was risky because of inclement weather conditions and the danger of rebels/pirates hijacking or holding up passenger boats.

Despite the lack of access to transportation, Gemma reached Zamboanga City and enrolled at the Western Mindanao State University (WMSU). She took up Bachelor of Science in Forestry. She struggled to support herself by doing laundry for her landlady. Each day held lots of challenges for Gemma, but she was undaunted. Her heart was set on finishing a degree and going back to her community with her diploma.

In the midst of her difficulties, Gemma learned about a Christian missionary couple who were in Zamboanga City to do a translation of the New Testament to Subanon language. Thinking that this was an interesting project, Gemma did not hesitate to talk to the couple to offer her assistance.

The Christian missionaries’ names were Bill and Lee Hall. The couple were associated with the Summer Institute for Linguistics (SIL), a non-profit organization which at that time had a partnership with the Department of Education to conduct research and documentation of the indigenous languages of the Philippines. The translation of the New Testament to Subanon was one of the major works of Bill and Lee in Zamboanga.

To the Halls, Gemma was heaven sent. She a pure Subanon who came from the bloodline of chieftains hence she was the best person to help in the translation work. The couple agreed to support Gemma’s college education in return for the work she would do for them. Through this arrangement, Gemma was able to finish college.

Gemma returned to her village in 1997 with her prized possession – her college diploma – a piece of paper so unreachable to some of her fellow Subanons. A year after returning to he village, Gemma successfully passed the board examination for forestry graduates and became a Licensed Forester.

Gemma’s story tells us that if we really yearn to achieve something, we must pursue it no matter what it takes. In the process of trying to reach our ambition, we must be ready to make sacrifices. The lack of economic resources must never be a hindrance. We just have to learn how to find the right opportunity to help us through the most trying times. Gemma looked to her indigenous roots and used that as an opportunity to find help she needed to finish her studies. And she came out successful.

No pressure, no diamonds, – Mary Case

Related Readings:

From Hardship to Harvard

10 Students Who Overcame Massive Obstacles to Achieve Their Dream of an Education

*Gemma’s story is included in my eBook available via Smashwords, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and iTunes.