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Illiterate? Inferior? Badjao is MSU magna cum laude

MANILA, Philippines – To get through college, Roben Abdella often skipped meals so he could pay his debts or buy his school requirements.

As an academic scholar of the Mindanao State University (MSU) Tawi-Tawi, he had to make the most of his small allowance. He rarely went home to his family in Sitangkai, a municipality in Tawi-Tawi at least 4 hours away from his school.

Going hungry never bothered Abdella. After all, his family often ate just once a day, while he still had the luxury of eating out once in a while with his schoolmates.

But what was most challenging for him in college was when people in MSU looked down on him because he is from Sama Dilaut, an ethnic group that also identifies as Badjaos.

According to MSU Tawi-Tawi professor Basil Sali, people perceive Badjaos as illiterate and inferior. One of the reasons could be that some parents would rather send their children out fishing than schooling so they can earn money.  (READ: The sea gypsies of Tawi Tawi)


But in MSU, it's not new to see Badjaos pursuing a college degree. Every year, the school offers a study grant exclusively for members of the ethnic group, and the last batch had 17 Badjao scholars.

Since most Badjaos in Sitangkai earn from fishing and seaweed farming, the very few who pursue higher education in MSU Tawi-Tawi prefer taking a short, two-year diploma course in fisheries technology instead of any 4-year courses.

Abdella was an exception. He took up Bachelor of Secondary Education, major in English – a subject and language he's good at, both in speaking and in writing. (READ: The difference in dreaming)

"Once you ask him, alam mo 'yung substance nung content, naibibigay niya (he can give the substance of the content). And then he's an excellent worker," Sali said.

While maintaining his scholarship, Abdella even managed to join MSU Tawi-Tawi's theater troupe Sining Parmata in his last year in college. He wrote musical theater scripts as the troupe's head writer. 

With flying honors

But in class, in his school essays, Abdella often wrote about the discrimination against him and his fellow Badjaos, Sali said. 

It was tough, but the 22-year-old went on to prove his critics wrong. 

Last March 30, Abdella graduated magna cum laude from MSU Tawi-Tawi – the first Badjao in the university to graduate with honors. He also received an Outstanding Pre-Service Teacher Award from his home college, the College of Education.

"Minsan iba 'yung tingin nila sa amin, [pero] dahil sa pride ko, nag-strive talaga ako," said Abdella. (Sometimes, they look at us differently, but because of my pride, I really strived.) 

Since it is rare for Badjaos in his community to finish college with honors, Abdella had to explain to them that a magna cum laude is equivalent to a high school salutatorian. (READ: Words of wisdom: 7 memorable grad speeches)

After graduation, the community threw him a celebration that lasted for 3 days. 

The value of education

But Abdella wants more than the festivities and a banner with his face on it.

He wants more young Sama Dilaut to finish college and excel like him because "education is a key for enlightenment." To him, education will help end the discrimination that persists against his tribe.

"I encourage them to go to college because it's free," he said, referring to the MSU scholarships for Badjaos.

He added: "As long as they're determined, [they can do it.] It's all about the sacrifices."

Should his younger tribemates decide to study in MSU Taw-Tawi, Abdella could be one of their teachers. The university hired him immediately after graduation, and he plans to juggle his first job with his masteral studies.

"I think with the inspiration coming from Roben, Badjao school children and parents will be encouraged to pursue higher education, to get a degree, and to help their family and tribe. Education is the best solution to end poverty and illiteracy," Sali said. –

Jee Y. Geronimo

Jee is part of Rappler's Central Desk, handling most of the world, science, and environment stories on the site. She enjoys listening to podcasts and K-pop, watching Asian dramas, and running long distances. She hopes to visit Israel someday to retrace the steps of her Savior.