Dr. Maria Fe Laguitan
From her office in the TRiO/Student Support Services center, Dr. Maria Fe Laguitan advises SCCC students on class schedules and job prospects. She also offers tough love delivered in no-nonsense edicts.
“You must not throw your opportunities away!” she might announce, followed by, “realize how valuable you are!”
The words may sound fierce, but the sentiment beneath them is tender.
When we look at student success in terms of empathy, it’s good to know this generation is actually kinder than previous ones. Maybe because of bullying and social media, or things they have seen in the news like 9/11, but they are more likely to be kind to their peers.
Laguitan speaks from experience. Growing up in the Philippines, she saw university education as “a rare commodity served from some people, people with money and privileges,” she recalled. Furthermore, as the youngest of five children in her family, Laguitan was expected to stay in the home and care for an older brother with profound physical disabilities.
“My brother was bedridden and completely dependent on others,” she said. “He needed help to eat, to bathe and use the toilet, and that was my duty, to care for him.”
The task was challenging for the young Laguitan, who was, she says, “the rambunctious one in my family.” Despite her mother’s reluctance, Laguitan continued high school studies in secret. An American aid worker, Elizabeth Schultz, encouraged the girl to take personal responsibility for her own education and even paid school fees for her to attend classes at the private high school. By the time she was old enough for college, her brother had died and Laguitan was free to pursue higher ed.
There was just one problem: no money.
“There was no way for me to go,” she said. “My father had died when I was 11 years old, and my mother could not provide the money. She said, ‘no, no, you’ can’t.’ I was crushed, heartbroken.”
It was Laguitan’s middle sister who came to the rescue.
“Her name is Liberty, and she is the kindest of us all,” she said. “She had been saving her money for years, and she gave it to me, 2,000 pesos, and said, ‘Go to Manila, go to college.’”
Liberty’s empathy and generosity fueled Laguitan’s determination. By the time she arrived at the university, most of the spots were filled, “but they said, ‘there’s political science still open,’ and I took it. I didn’t care what I studied, I just wanted to be in college and better myself.”
Over time, Laguitan earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. Following her mother and sisters, she relocated to the United States where she continued her education and professional development. While she’s proud of the academic achievements, she counts life lessons as equally valuable.
“At the multicultural conference I attended last week, the speaker talked a lot about empathy, and why it is so important for us to connect with our students,” she said. “Until you put yourself in the other person’s shoes, it’s hard to make a difference.”
The advice echoes what Liberty often told her younger sister, when the two earned money working as nurse and certified nurse aide respectively.
“That was how I got started when I came to the U.S., working in nursing homes and hospitals,” Laguitan recalled. “Liberty is just so kind to everyone, she didn’t get angry when patients would yell or call her names. She would say, ‘They’re just in pain. It’s our job to care for them and to make them smile.’”
“Sometimes these senior people would throw poop at me, and then I would remember what Liberty said,” Laguitan recalled. “We may think we’re so small, so tiny, but if our hearts are kind enough, it changes things.”
That same motivation fuels Laguitan’s work at SCCC and TRiO. During her years working at the SCCC Colvin Adult Learning Center, she sharpened her focus on helping newcomers gain solid English skills, become literate, and move on to college work. She applies that experience to advising and encouraging students on the main campus.
“Cultural barriers and individual stories can divide people, and it’s our job to get past that,” she said. “Our students need to know we will back them, we will open doors and give them a sense of belonging. School should be the place where they feel safe and confident. People showed me that empathy, and now it’s my turn to pass it along.”