BAGUIO CITY, Philippines – A 21-year-old woman from the mountain town of Alilem in Ilocos Sur is this year's Philippine Military Academy (PMA) valedictorian – the fifth woman to top a class since the first Asian military institute accepted women in 1993.
Cadet First Class Dionne Mae Apolog Umalla will graduate as number one among her 262 classmates or mistahs of the PMA Mabalasik Class of 2019.
President Rodrigo Duterte will give her the Presidential Saber and 13 other awards this Sunday, May 26, at Fort del Pilar.
The story of Umalla is one of grit and determination, as she practically fended for herself since elementary. The youngest of 4 children, Umalla was only in Grade 2 when her soldier father left them to start another family. She has not seen him since.
"My mother is my hero," she said.
Her mother, Dominga Umalla, took care of Dionne and 3 elder brothers by herself. She is set to retire as a school teacher at the Alilem National High School.
"Mama, tumakder ka manen (Mom, you will stand up again)," she told her mother, recalling the time when her mother proudly stood up to pin medals on her daughter.
Umalla left Alilem to study elementary at Saint Louis College in San Fernando City, La Union. She ended up being the valedictorian.
She said that one thing she learned from the elders of Alilem is to always look for the bright side.
"Bawal ti nakasimangot (Frowning is not allowed)," she said.
Umalla was one of 30 scholars nationwide who attended the First Asia Institute of Technology and Humanities in Tanauan, Batangas. She was on the President's List on her second year when she decided to join the PMA.
Umalla is only one of 73 females that will graduate as part of Class Mandirigma ng Bayan Lakas at Sarili Iaalay para sa Kapayapaan (Mabalasik). There are 4 females in the Top 10.
The other female valedictorians in PMA history were the late Navy Lieutenant Senior Grade Arlene dela Cruz in 1999, who perished in a car crash in 2008; Major Tara Velasco Cayton in 2003; Navy Commander Andrelee Mojica in 2007; and Navy Ensign Rovi Mairel Valino Martinez in 2017.
"She is an inspiration to the Ilocano youth," incoming Ilocos Sur Representative Kristine Singson Meehan said.
"It's not a question of who is better, the men or the women. It's how you contribute to the betterment of PMA. It's how you strive for excellence. It's how you perform," Umalla said.
Umalla will also receive the Philippine Navy Saber for being the top Navy recruit.
"I decided to join the Philippine Navy because of its logo, which is that of the merlion. The Navy is the only one with the mythical creature in its logo," she said.
Umalla's other awards include the Distinguished Cadet Award (Starman), Joint US Military Assistance Group (Jusmag) Award, Australian Defense Best Overall Performance Award, Spanish Armed Forces Award, and the Association of Generals and Flag Officers (Agfo) Award.
She will also receive the Humanities, Management, Social Sciences, Natural Science, Computing and Information Science, and Department of Leadership Plaques.
Photo by Mau Victa/Rappler
Rounding up the Top 10 are:
2. Cadet 1CL Jonathan Eslao Mendoza, a 21-year-old son of a soldier. He will receive the Vice Presidential Saber, Philippine Air Force Saber, Aguinaldo Saber, and Australian Defense Best Overall Performance Award.
3. Cadet 1CL Jahziel Gumapac Tandoc from Wangal, La Trinidad, Benguet. She was one of the 4 Cordillerans in the Top 10 and was a scholar of the Cordillera Regional Science High School. She was taking up BS Physics at the University of the Philippines (UP) Baguio when she joined the PMA. She will be the second PMA graduate in their family, joining 2nd Lt. Tyra Tandoc. She will receive the Secretary of National Defense Saber, Army Professional Courses Plaque, and Australian Defense Best Overall Performance Award.
4. Cadet 1CL Daniel Heinz Bugnosen Lucas of Barlig, Mountain Province. He actually finished his Bachelor of Secondary Education Major in Math at the Saint Louis University as a cum laude. He was also valedictorian of the Barlig National High School. His father, Danilo, is the municipal engineer. Lucas will receive the Air Force Professional Courses Plaque.
5. Cadet 1CL Aldren Maambong Altamero of Kidapawan, North Cotabato. He was also a college graduate, finishing Bachelor of Technology in Industrial Management at the University of Southern Mindanao-Kidapawan. He will receive the General Antonio Luna Award.
6. Cadet 1CL Richard Balabac Lonogan of Sagada, Mountain Province. The 22-year-old Kankanaey was valedictorian at the Antadao National High School and was a freshman at the University of Cordilleras.
7. Cadet 1CL Marnel Dinihay Fundales of Leganes, Iloilo. The 21-year-old Fundales was taking up Political Science at UP Visayas when she joined the PMA.
8. Cadet 1CL Glyn Elinor Buansi Marapao of Lengaoan, Buguias, Benguet. The daughter of a retired sergeant proudly said that she is Kankanaey-Ilocano-Tagalog-Bisaya. She was valedictorian at the Benguet State University Lab High School and will receive the Navy Professional Courses Plaque.
9. Cadet 1CL Ruth Angelique Ricardo Pasos is also an Ilocana like the valedictorian, although she hardly speaks Ilocano because she grew up in Pasig City.
10. Cadet 1CL Daryl James Jalgalado Ligutan of Sta Mesa, Manila. The son of a retired police officer, Ligutan was a 3rd year student of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines when he joined the PMA.