THE global pandemic signaled a time of great challenges for countless students. Yet somehow, some Filipino graduate-scholars managed to flourish, as they turned their individual situations into opportunities to pursue knowledge beyond borders.
Computer Science scholar Neil Justin Romblon never imagined that his first time abroad would entail living on the other side of the world for an entire year.
He was concluding his undergraduate studies in 2018 when a professor shared about the new transnational Master’s programs offered by De La Salle University (DLSU), in alliance with Liverpool Hope University (LHU) in the United Kingdom.
Romblon gave it a try the following year, as he applied for dual Master’s degrees in data science and computer science, and a full scholarship from the Commission on Higher Education. Before long, he was 7,000 miles away from home for the first time, as he lived among a global community of learners in Liverpool.
“Abroad, LHU allowed me to set my own pace [and] explore ideas outside the curriculum to expand my learning experience,” he shared. “Data science is a growing industry and a perfect option for me. My DLSU professors paved the way for this rare learning opportunity by igniting my enthusiasm to learn, and then showing me where I can fulfill my need for knowledge.”
Appreciation for this academic setup was shared by Timothy Scott Chu—a mechanical engineer who took up dual Master’s programs on his field specialization and robotics:
“The program offered was an absolute ‘win’ [for me], since I wanted to pursue a Master’s degree in DLSU,” described Chu. “At the same time, I wanted to specialize in robotics, which was the partner program in LHU.”
The Department of Science and Technology-Engineering Research and Development for Technology scholar took further studies to broaden his skills after he resigned from his job in Jazan, Saudi Arabia: “In a new learning environment, I was able to build connections, [as I collaborated] with colleagues and professors on projects that ended up getting published.”
‘Clear research focus’
THE two faced the challenges of the pandemic at the end of their respective terms abroad, making the situation manageable for both. But for DLSU graduate alumna and school teacher Bella Joy Bardollas (Master of Arts in History, 2017), the health crisis was a challenge to be met head-on when she commenced her second Master’s degree in Sweden’s Uppsala University.
She applied for a scholarship through the Swedish Institute in 2019, which was granted just as lockdowns were starting across the globe. The pandemic gave her doubts about pursuing the scholarship initially, but the uniqueness of her chosen specialization decided for her:
“It’s fortuitous that there [was], under my current program, a specialization on the ‘history of educational systems.’ This is right along my research direction. As a teacher by profession, I focus on topics tackling the foundations of educational systems.”
Bardollas credits her Lasallian graduate experience for the opportunity. She claims her Master’s thesis mentor, Dr. Lars Ubaldo, helped her establish a clear research focus, which facilitated her scholarship application and admission to Uppsala. Grad school also filled in the required years to enter Sweden’s educational system—years she lacked, as she was not a product of the K-12 system.
“Also, in this competitive arena of international scholarships, universities look not just at the quality of your work, but also the credentials of the institution that gave you your degree,” she shared.
THE grounding provided by a good university is understood well by DLSU graduate studies alumnus Karl Patrick Mendoza (Master of Arts in Political Science, 2018). He is currently a scholar at the University of Canterbury (UC) in Christchurch, New Zealand, taking up PhD in media and communications.
“Apart from giving me the confidence to apply for graduate programs abroad, my experience in DLSU allowed me to understand myself and the overseas opportunities available by providing a platform to connect with and work alongside professors who do not only teach research, but also do research,” Mendoza averred.
It was even his master’s thesis panel in DLSU who suggested his doctoral research topic: the politics of news coverage surrounding the Dengvaxia vaccine controversy. It was a subject that became even more relevant with the pandemic, especially with the various discussions on vaccine acceptance.
Although he was in one of the few cities in the world that effectively controlled the spread of the virus, early restrictions in Christchurch had an effect on Mendoza, who was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and suffers from social anxiety disorder.
“The relatively brief lockdown period that we had here saw a period of decline in my motivation for studying,” he admitted. “As someone in constant need of occasional distraction through nonacademic activities, I found it hard to set up a daily work routine.”
Nonetheless, Mendoza was able to turn things around—even winning UC’s Judith Ensor Prize, which recognizes the achievement and commitment of students with a specific learning difficulty.
He went back to old habits, taking the discipline from years of learning to help himself get back on track, and showing that the thirst for knowledge—once planted—does not stop, and can only grow.
These graduate students all live by the said mantra, with encouragement and guidance from their mentors, as well as academic-support systems.
In the face of an existential threat such as the pandemic, continuous learning becomes a way for them to survive.