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Making History: First Filipina scholar in Australia leaves a lasting legacy in Philippine academe

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Now one hundred one years old, Dr Dionisia Rola was a senior in the University of the Philippines’ (UP) Education program when World War II broke out and interrupted her studies. Armed with her passion for education, she spent wartime organising classes for the barrio folks in her hometown.

When the war ended, Dr Rola resumed her studies and graduated magna cum laude in 1947. “I was one of the first to return from the war to finish my college education,” she recalls. She landed a job as a teacher in UP’s English Department, which was in great need of faculty members during the post-war period.

In the next few years, most of her batchmates would leave for the United States to pursue postgraduate education. “I did not join them at that time. Fortunately, I learned that the Australian Government was providing scholarships for study and training in Australia as part of the Colombo Plan – a regional initiative aimed to strengthen relationships among countries in the Asia-Pacific.”  

A call from then UP president Bienvenido Gonzalez jumpstarted Dr Rola’s career in the academe. “He told me, ‘You are going to Australia.’ He explained that I was going to be the first Filipino scholar to be granted with this opportunity, and it would be good for the country and for the faculty of English,” she recalls. Dr Rola responded to the call and set her mind on specialising in literature upon her return to UP.

In 1950, she began studying for her master’s degree in English at the University of Melbourne as a scholar supported by the Australian Government.

“When I was there, I wanted them to know the best of my country and of my people. So, I tried to be the best of what I represented. I would always use ‘best’ as my yardstick,” she says.

Dr Rola graduated with honors in 1952, the first Filipina to graduate from an Australian University. She did not only excel in class, but even outside the classroom. “I got involved in non-scholastic activities as a way for us to introduce our country to the people of Australia,” she shares. 

While in Melbourne, Dr Rola learned as much as she can about Australia and its way of life. “The Australian environment, culture, including the Australian accent, were very new to me, and my experiences opened my eyes to a wider world.”

“Australia is a vast country with rich resources, especially in terms of education and culture. There were opportunities to start new things and develop new connections from north to south. I stayed in Melbourne for two years and gained friends who were like-minded and became like family,” she shares.

Dr Rola made lifelong mates whom she shared fond memories with. She recalls how she used to receive a lot of letters from her Australian friends every Christmas. “Memories from my early days as a scholar in Australia never fail to leave a smile on my face. Most of these fun memories came from our silly experiences learning Australian English. Likewise, my new Australian friends then also learned ‘Filipino English’ from us.”

A pioneer at heart

When Dr Rola returned to the Philippines in 1952, she served as Chair of the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UP Diliman.  

Every decade saw her adding another feather to her cap. She became Dean of UP Baguio in 1967 and then Dean of UP Iloilo in 1973, where she led efforts to establish UP Visayas, by integrating four branches of UP – the UP College of Fisheries, UP Cebu, UP Iloilo, and UP Tacloban. She was named UP Visayas’ first chancellor in 1980 – the first woman chancellor in the UP system. A pioneer at heart, she also helped oversee the early years of UP Pampanga.

A legacy that lasts

Dr Rola’s extraordinary contributions to UP and to Philippine higher education – in no small part influenced by her experience in Australia – continue to inspire the current generation of educators.  

Celebrating her 100th birthday in 2020, Dr Rola is still an inspiration to many. Her advice to current and future Filipino students in Australia: “Be yourself and say ‘I am a Filipino’. Be humble and admit when you need help. Be a local and learn everything you can about Australia and its people – but make sure to come back to the Philippines and give back.”  

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