Ex-sampaguita boy blooms in Cornell, Oxford, Gulf states
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – While most boys his age were sound asleep in the comfort of their homes, 6-year-old Froilan Malit was already preparing for work at 3 am.
Hours before sunrise, he must get up, rain or shine, to pick sampaguita (Jasminum Sambac) in a snake-infested flower farm in a small town in Guagua, Pampanga, north of Manila.
A dipper, locally known as tabo, filled with sampaguita earned the frail and young Malit just about P3 or a quarter of a Dirham. He got a few more pesos if he strung the Philippine national flower into leis as fast as he could – money to keep himself and his other siblings alive.
“I was never a child. I had to grow up fast,” Malit told The Filipino Times.
He recalled how he had to take any odd jobs he could find while growing up to help his paternal grandparents earn a living after his mother left for the US in 1987. His father, a high school dropout, worked in different construction sites in another part of the Philippines.
Malit’s mother, an accountant from Ifugao province, left her 4 kids for the US as a delegate for a tribal art exhibit along with some Canadian researchers. She didn’t know she was a month pregnant at the time.
She opted to stay in the land of milk and honey to deliver her baby who instantly became a US citizen. She struggled to survive and was never heard of in the Philippines until 10 years later.
Malit was then turning 16 and had lost all hopes his biological mother would still show up.
“I didn’t know her at all. My parents were separated the moment she left us. We’ve managed to survive without her. My father eventually remarried and she too has married an American,” he said.
But when the drama finally subsided and all was forgiven, Malit took the chance to be with his mother in America where his life changed forever.
The American dream
Growing up in a rural community where survival is a priority, Malit had trouble speaking English when he first arrived in the US.
“I came from a rural area in Pampanga. We don’t speak English much so; it was very challenging for me,” he said. In his first few months in the US, he struggled to communicate with Americans and got bullied because of his background and timid demeanor.
Undeterred, Malit took it as a challenge and worked hard to conquer the English language as best as he could.
At 16, he worked as a sausage product demonstrator, a gardener, a cashier at a Standford University bookstore, among other low-paying jobs. He used his earnings to enroll at Caῆada College, a community college in California, where he excelled in academics.
“It was challenging because I came from Pampanga, very rural. Even though we studied English there it was very different. The moment I got into the US it was hard. When I arrived, my mother was working two to 3 jobs. It was a working family,” said Malit.
“Language was a huge barrier. I remember writing an essay and my mentor scratched the whole thing and threw it in the garbage. I took remedial English and learned up to 6,000 vocabularies instantly,” added Malit, who later became the president of the Filipino-American Community and the UN Chapter at the college.
His hard work paid off. He graduated with honors and got into the prestigious Cornell University, an Ivy League school.
Malit recalled that when he first went to New York state where Cornell is based, he just had $500 but his persistence and determination paid off.
“I had $500 in my pocket. I went to New York and went to the university and I begged. I got in but I don’t have money and they showed me several loan packages. I signed them,” he said.
If getting into Cornell was tough, it was tougher to deal with the upper class homegrown and international students who had the latest gadgets and everything they needed to survive campus life.
“I had another layer of struggles. I was surrounded by upper class students with lots of money. I told them, 'I’m poor and I’m originally from the Philippines.' I didn’t fit in socially because I have no money but I was able to fit in intellectually,” said Malit.
There were some instances of discrimination but Malit brushed them aside. In 2010, he graduated with honors with a bachelor’s degree in labor relations. He followed this with a Master’s degree in public relations a year later.
“It was tough initially, partly because I didn’t have the support that I needed but I had a dream. I was so determined. I told myself that I wanted to be somebody,” said Malit.
Where the heart belongs
In 2011, he visited the Philippines and did scholarly work for the University of the Philippines. His findings about so many children left behind by mothers and fathers working in the GCC region sparked his interest.
“It sparked my interest so I came here. Initially, I went to Qatar and did a lot of studies. Then I came here and did internship with the Dubai School of Government now known as the Mohammed bin Rashid School of Government,” said Malit who did policy papers for the Philippine government offices in Qatar and the UAE.
His exposure in Qatar and UAE eventually convinced him to further take up graduate studies at Oxford University specializing in migration which he had since completed.
In between, Malit taught and did research work for the Zayed University and American Sharjah University.
Last year, the 25-year-old Malit was hired by the Ministry of Labor as project manager to handle pilot projects for the Filipino community and other migrants.
With two MAs from an Ivy League school and the UK, Malit could easily land a high-paying job in Washington, DC, but he said his calling is in the GCC area where many Filipinos are given opportunities.
“This actually inspires me and keeps me alive. I feel the obligation kasi (because) the universe has favorably looked upon me in a very positive way and I feel the need to give something back,” said Malit, whose feet remain firmly on the ground despite his major accomplishments.
“This actually made me more humble. My grandfather who passed away when I was 10 used to tell me, 'Wag mong paliparin ang lobong nakatali sa bato (keep the balloon tied to a rock)' – which means stay humble,” he added.
And for someone who may have seen the best and the worst in two different worlds, Malit still eyes bigger dreams in the future like earning a law degree from Harvard University.
“The power of education could really change you and the world,” Malit, who will turn 26 on October 20, sums it up. – Rappler.com
This story is republished with permission from The Filipino Times
In these changing times, courage and clarity become even more important.
Take discussions to the next level with Rappler PLUS — your platform for deeper insights, closer collaboration, and meaningful action.
Sign up today and access exclusive content, events, and workshops curated especially for those who crave clarity and collaboration in an intelligent, action-oriented community.
As an added bonus, we’re also giving a free 1-year Booky Prime membership for the next 200 subscribers.
You can also support Rappler without a PLUS membership. Help us stay free and independent by making a donation: https://www.rappler.com/crowdfunding. Every contribution counts.