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FEATURE: Lanao del Norte 'habal-habal' driver's son makes it to PMA Class 2020 Honor Roll

by Harold Clavite

Proud Parents. Rodrigo Abgao, 54, and Betty Abgao, 53, are ecstatic with the achievement of their son, Cadet 1st Class Rubenson P. Abgao, who ranked number 9 in the Philippine Military Academy's Masidlawin Class 2020. (Photo: H.Clavite/HRS Media)
Proud Parents. Rodrigo Abgao, 54, and Betty Abgao, 53, are ecstatic with the achievement of their son, Cadet 1st Class Rubenson P. Abgao, who ranked number 9 in the Philippine Military Academy's Masidlawin Class 2020. (Photo: H.Clavite/HRS Media)

LANAO DEL NORTE (24 May 2020) - The Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Class Masidlawin 2020 were honored in a simple graduation rites on Friday away from the grandiose of its usual annual ceremonies in Fort Del Pilar in Baguio City.

The topnotchers were given recognition – one of them, who ranked 9th place in the honor roll, is the son of a struggling farmer who also earned a living as a 'habal-habal' driver and charcoal vendor from Baroy, Lanao del Norte.

196 cadets graduate this year with 172 males and 23 females. According to a class profile released by the PMA Public Affairs Office, 100 of the cadets are joining the Philippine Army while 44 are joining the Philippine Air Force; 48 cadets are joining the Philippine Navy.

As PMA Commandant of Cadets Brig. Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. announced the top 10 graduates on Friday, Cadet 1st Class Rubenson Prajes Abgao was introduced alongside topnotchers composed of 5 male and 5 female cadets. Taking the top spot is a female cadet from Isabela, Cadet 1st Class Gemalyn Sugui. No guests were invited in the ceremonies and parents didn't have the chance to witness such momentous occasion. Rubenson Abgao is joining the Philippine Air Force.

Now 21 years old, Abgao left his family in 2016 to join the Academy. Two of his older brothers are currently active corporals in the Philippine Army – one assigned in Marawi City and the other in Iligan City. The younger Abgao is fourth of five children of Rodrigo and Betty.

The family struggle

While Rodrigo tended a small piece of land he inherited from his parents which produced a minimal yield of copra and palay, Betty took care of their five children while spending several hours of her day carving out coconut fruit to sell dried copra. For most of their lives, they lived in a dilapidated dwelling in barangay Maliwanag.

“Life had been difficult. It was a struggle. This house did not look like the original one we had,” said Rodrigo.

Their current two-story concrete house lies in a beautiful greenery in the middle of a coconut and rice farmland, built by their older children Rubelyn, Roger and Robert.

Rodrigo and four other siblings inherited 2.5 hectares of land from his parents and he personally tended his portion of 5,000 square meters. The family depended on seasonal yield of their small farm and in between planting and harvest season, Rodrigo had to juggle part-time jobs to make ends meet. While determined to provide for their college education, Rodrigo had difficulty securing enough finances for their children to finish their degrees. Two older children went to college together. For Rubelyn to finish college, Rodrigo had to sell his wife’s carabao and had to later resort into getting loans from neighbors.

Prior to making the hard decision of using their farmland as a loan collateral, Rodrigo had to engage his children and included them in the decision-making process. Rodrigo shared to them his own realization that with education, life could improve. In his case, his parents didn't send him to college and he was left without any choice but to do hard labor in the farm to be able to survive.

According to Rodrigo, he brought his children with him to the farm and, at a young age, allowed them to experience the arduous tasks of tilling the soil and planting rice. At one point, he asked them if they wanted to do hard labor all their life or get an education to secure improved life conditions in the future. With hurting backs and hands, his children decided to choose education. And Rodrigo made a promise to make it work for them.

He explained in Cebuano: “I wanted my children to decide for themselves, whether they choose to follow my footsteps and do hard labor in the farm or go to school and live improved lives in the future. I told them this before— working in the farm, we hurt our feet and we don't get to wear shoes or slippers while working in the mud. But what about those professionals who don't work in the mud – how come they wear the nicest and sturdiest pairs of shoes?”

Uling and habal-habal

When their kids were younger, Rodrigo and Betty sold charcoal (uling) in nearby barangay Manan-ao while farm produce were unreliable. Rodrigo said he had to find other ways to earn money and could not solely rely on his small farm. He had to do everything to fulfill his goal of providing their children the education they deserved. Rodrigo envied those whom he knew who had gone to school who got nice jobs and improved lifestyles later on. He regretted he never had such chance and that he had to remain in the farm to work hard everyday barely making ends meet. He sold charcoal for 13 years.

Rodrigo drove the habal-habal for 12 years and, in addition to seasonal sales from the farm, the same motorcycle practically brought education into his kids' lives including Rubenson's.

As a 4Ps beneficiary, on the other hand, Betty received monetary aid from government.

Rodrigo, 54, looks at his 'habal-habal' which he drove for 12 years to support his family. Behind him is a small parcel of rice field which he inherited from his parents. (Photo: H.Clavite/HRS Media)
Rodrigo, 54, looks at his 'habal-habal' which he drove for 12 years to support his family. Behind him is a small parcel of rice field which he inherited from his parents. (Photo: H.Clavite/HRS Media)

The schoolboy who planted palay

Rubenson was in elementary and high school when he worked in his father’s farm. According to him, he and his siblings had to help their father in planting rice to bring down overhead costs as the family had to keep up with loans.

Rodrigo taught his kids to plant rice in the mud, harvest palay, pump water, and deal with the carabao. For a lanky kid like Rubenson and his brothers, farm work was pure hard labor.

“But I understood why I had to do it. We were five children growing up together and two of my older siblings went to college almost at the same time. Whatever the family earned, it had to go to my older siblings’ education,” said Rubenson.

Rubenson fixed his mindset that once he was inside the Academy, he would never give up, no matter how difficult it would take. Every time he felt like giving up, he would remind himself of his goal of not going back to the hard labor in the farm.

“There were times I would feel so low and get so tired in PMA and I would tell myself that I will never go back to the painful experience in the past and so I persevered,” he added.

Student achiever

Prior to joining the PMA, Rubenson went to college as a DOST scholar in the Mindanao State University – Iligan Institute of Technology (MSU-IIT) where he studied Computer Science for two semesters. Prior to moving to Iligan for college, he was a popular student and an achiever in high school. He was an outstanding student at the Lanao del Norte National Comprehensive High School (LNNCHS) in Baroy. Despte his numerous achievements in school, he remained shy.

Mrs. Edalyn Melecio-Olis, Master Teacher I and Rubenson's ICT teacher at LNNCHS, remembers him as a "diligent, very humble, respectful, and responsible student." He showed dedication in class and would always come to school very early despite the distance he had to travel each day. "Sonson, as he is fondly called, would never say no to anything. He always wore that smile everytime his teachers asked him to do things for them. He never failed to come to me and would always wait until classes ended just to spend time with us and talk or exchange pleasantries," said Olis.

Rubenson was an honor student in high school and excelled in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). As an active leader in Boy Scouts of the Philippines (BSP), he participated in several competitions in the region. He even represented Lanao del Norte in the Regional Technolympics Skills Competition and won First Place in tarpaulin design. He joined the National Technolympics Skills Competition in Marikina in 2014.

"I am one of the proudest teachers. Son, continue to be humble. Love your work and do not forget to pray at all times. I have witnessed your remarkable achievements and I thank you for choosing to serve our country," said Olis when asked for her message to her student.

Life in the Academy had totally changed Rubenson. He had become more confident and his character inspirited and emboldened by the PMA’s ideals on courage, integrity and loyalty. He acquired the courage to be in conversations with other people and to express his mind. He had physically matured as well and believes he has been fully developed as a person.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the PMA decided to push through with this year’s graduation ceremonies without guests and the cadets’ families were not invited. Rubenson said his family had prepared for a trip to Baguio and had already bought plane tickets.

“It was sad knowing that they would not be able to come. They prepared for this. Earlier in February, they already had tickets. I was in low morale as they would not be able to witness the achievement I got. However, I am still thankful because I get to graduate. I know that some schools in the country have cancelled their graduation ceremonies,” said Rubenson.

Top ten

According to Rodrigo, he knew that his son, Rubenson, was a smart child. He was aware of his achievements in elementary and high school. But when he was about to finish high school, he had to tell him that they were still in financial trouble and that he had to find scholarships from government to be able to go to college. Determined to get a degree, Rubenson took scholarship tests and qualified for DOST and the PMA. While waiting for his PMA eligibility, he went to school to Iligan. Rodrigo did not expect his child to achieve more in college and especially in PMA.

“Whatever he got now, being in the top ten, I did not expect that. It’s a big bonus,” said Rodrigo.

On the other hand, Betty did not think about the accolades and recognition. She is thankful that Rubenson survived PMA and that he is on his way to a better life on his own now. Her children are professionals now and they only have one child left to support. Husband and wife are only hopeful that their children would always look back to where they came from and remember the sacrifices their parents and their family had for them.

The youngest child, Raymond, is likewise on his way to PMA. At age 18, Raymond who stands 5’8” had complied and passed the medical and physical examinations in V. Luna Medical Center in Quezon City. At present, he is waiting to be called in for the upcoming school year in PMA.

With great pride, Rodrigo tells his friends that his three boys are serving in the military and one is on his way to follow the footsteps of his older brothers. Their sacrifices had truly paid off.

Notwithstanding all the hardships earlier on, the patriarch of the Abgao family was determined to be an instrument for a better life and future of their five children. Three boys are now in the military and the eldest, Rubelyn, works as a Supervisor in a food manufacturing company in Cebu. Apart from acquiring education, Rodrigo instilled in his children's minds that wherever they may go and whatever they accomplish in life, they must keep their values ​​intact and always put first the value of respect; and to respect themselves and others is paramount.

Rubenson could not equivocate but only proudly enunciate the words.

“’Nay, ‘Tay, Salamat sa inyong pag suporta. Kung wala ko ninyo gisuportahan, dili ko maabot ug ingon ani karon. Salamat kaayo sa inyong pagpasingot ug pag-antos aron makahuman mi ug eskwela tanan. Ug sa akong mga igsoon, Salamat pod kaayo sa inyong suporta,” said Rubenson.

(Mother, Father, I thank you for your support. If you did not support me, I would not have achieved what I have now. Thank you for your sweat, for sacrificing a lot so we finish our education. And to my siblings, thank you for supporting me.)

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