A Teacher’s Voice

It is not unusual to meet a person who at an early age sets his sights on a clear vision or dream for his future. However, rare is the person who actually manages to pursue and realize this dream. Even rarer is the person who likewise then seeks to make others’ dreams come true. Mr. Robert Abad Santos Suntay, or “Bobbit” as he is commonly called, is one such rarity.

Bobbit Suntay, 42, has known for the past two decades of his life that he wanted to enter the field of education. He has long since fulfilled this life-long dream and has led an exemplary life while doing so. I first came across his name a couple of years ago when I would listen to older friends and relatives studying at Xavier School talking about how much they liked their Principal Mr. Suntay. Not so long ago, I found out that there’s much more to Mr. Suntay than being the students’ ‘favorite teacher.’

Bobbit is currently a Doctoral Candidate in Administration, Planning, and Social Policy (APSP) at the prestigious Harvard University; his research focus being Principalship, Principal Preparation and Professional Development, and Education Reform. He has been awarded distinctions such as the Academic Excellence Citation, Spencer Award, and the Ford/Lopez/Harvard University Scholarships. He also holds an M.Ed from Harvard University, M.A. Education/Human Development from George Washington University and M.A. Liberal Studies from Georgetown University. Bobbit took his undergraduate studies at Ateneo de Manila University, an A.B. Psychology honor student while at the same time President of the Athletes’ Assoc. and Varsity Captain of the NCAA/UAAP All-Star Team.

Bobbit is currently on academic study leave from his posts as the Managing Director of the Ateneo Center for Educational Development (ACED), Co-Director for the Jesuit Basic Education Commission (JBEC), and Assistant Professor at the Education Department of Ateneo de Manila University. No stranger to a hectic work life, Bobbit was formerly the Xavier School (Greenhills) Director of Athletics and High School Principal, Change Management Services consultant for Andersen Consulting, Human Resources Programs Manager for World Center for Development and Training, Management Trainee in International Marketing for Philippine Airlines, and Personnel Manager for the Madrigal Group of Companies.

Despite all the above-mentioned achievements, the greatest love of Bobbit’s life does not actually lie in work or education. He is blissfully and happily married to a wonderful woman, Dr. Jackie Fernandez, herself a well-accomplished woman who took medicine at the University of the Philippines and Ophthalmology at Harvard University. However, Bobbit and Jackie’s lives have not been one smooth-sailing walk in the park. Jackie was diagnosed with cancer nearly two years ago and has been battling the disease ever since. While this would have brought down people much weaker in spirit, Bobbit and Jackie’s generosity and strength of character still shine through. Their future plans include taking time off in order to put up a free cancer resource and wellness center in Manila.

One might think that with all the challenges facing Bobbit, he would have no time to himself, let alone to pursue his other hobbies. Not true. A Mac/PC enthusiast, Bobbit is a competitive softball, volleyball, badminton, and squash player, an intermediate tennis player and a professionally certified scuba Divemaster (PADI-USA). He enjoys trekking and leading scuba diving eco-tours with mantas, dolphins, barracuda, hammerheads, whalesharks, and people (especially his wife). Luckily, he has also taken time out from his busy schedule to share his thoughts on his life as an educator and loving husband.

YS: What made you decide to enter the field of education?

I was inspired by the example set by my high school teachers. I also felt that I had the potential to become a good teacher and role model for my students. Most important, I believed that teaching was a God-given vocation and opportunity for me to make a modest contribution to society.

YS: Was this always something you wanted since you were a kid?

Since I was in second year high school at the Ateneo de Manila.

YS: What pushed you to take your PhD? Why not stop at Masters?

While I had learned a lot from my Master’s degrees, I felt that I required both the depth and breadth of a doctoral program in order to acquire the expertise I would need to achieve my objective of making a significant difference in the Philippine education sector. More specifically, making a difference via contributing towards helping design, develop, and deploy a national principal’s training and development center in the Philippines.

YS: Did your Ateneo education prepare you for the rigorous academic pressures at Georgetown/Harvard?

Most certainly! In fact, I can confidently say that I was able to excel in my graduate programs abroad precisely because my Ateneo education gave me the knowledge, skills, and attributes to do so!

YS: What planning did you undergo to enter top-notch schools for your Masters and PhD?

First, I researched the various education schools in order to identify the particular program that would best meet my professional and personal needs. Second, I undertook a rigorous review program in order to improve my standardized test scores as best I could. Third, I very seriously and thoroughly completed my doctoral program application forms, paying particular attention to preparing my essays and to securing good letters of recommendation. In addition, because I knew as early as my college days that I wanted to pursue graduate education, I worked hard to get good grades while developing a well-rounded student profile in athletics and other extra-curricular activities. I also chose my jobs carefully so that I would have work experience that improved my chances of admission to a good school.

YS: How did you find the experience of studying abroad?

I very much appreciate my educational experiences in the US. My graduate studies taught me how to engage in serious research and scholarship, as well as how to work rigorously and independently. I also learned a lot from my professors, many of whom are tops in their field both in the US and internationally. In addition, the experience of interacting with students of different nationalities was very exciting. Lastly, knowing that I could go head-to-head with a diverse group of students and professors in world-class universities was a great confidence builder.

YS: As a teacher, how do you find kids today compared to those of say, 10 years ago?

It’s hard for me to compare because, most recently, my students have been educators pursuing their graduate degrees at Harvard, whereas my students ten years ago were Xavier High School boys. I’ve also been away from the Philippines for the past five years.

YS: What were the highs and lows of being the Xavier High School Principal?

The highs revolved around the honor and privilege of leading a group of remarkably talented faculty, staff, and students in achieving our goal of developing “men for others:” students who possess the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and other attributes crucial towards making a positive difference in the Philippines and in the world.

The lows involved dealing with those few members of the school community who were not engaged in – and who sometimes opposed – our efforts to work together in developing men for others. This was oftentimes discouraging, frustrating, and quite sad. Fortunately, these individuals were the exception rather than the rule.

YS: What is your most vivid memory as the Principal of XS?

First: the experience of succeeding in making a modest difference in the lives of students, teachers, and parents, thanks to the commitment and concerted efforts of our Xavier School community. This was quite gratifying and fulfilling. Second: Meeting the students, faculty, and parents for the first time as a brand-new, 29 year old principal! This experience was both exciting and intimidating!

YS: What avenues are open for a person who takes Psychology and Education besides teaching?

Personally, I have found training, Human Resources Development, Organization Development, Change Management Services, consulting, and research to be very promising and appropriate avenues.

YS: What advice would you give fresh graduates undecided about what course their lives will take?

To paraphrase the theologian, Frederick Buechner, “you can find your calling/vocation by seeing where your heart’s deepest happiness intersects with the world’s deepest needs.” In my case, my passion is for teaching, and this helps meet the need for committed educators. This is why I have dedicated my life to teaching and education in various forms. In other words, stick to your passion and develop the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and other attributes necessary so that it can be harnessed towards making the world a better place for others.

YS: You are married to Jackie, who is as above-mentioned herself a well-accomplished woman – how do you two make the relationship work?

Needless to say, we are both very driven and busy. Quite simply, however – we make our relationship work by always making it Priority 1! Everything else in our lives: career, hobbies, etc. are second priority. We also do our best to balance our time commitments, and we make sure that we have regular quality time to spend with each other and with our loved ones and friends.

YS: Greatest wish you’d like to be granted?

My wife Jackie, who has been battling cancer for nearly two years now, is the light of my life and my inspiration. I am truly awed and deeply inspired by how she has been able to remain so upbeat, selfless, and generous despite all the challenges she has had to face, lately. Thus, my greatest wish is that she be cured of her disease so that she can continue to inspire and heal others via both her hands and her heart.

YS: What are your plans for the future? Will you eventually settle down in Manila? Go back to teaching?

Yes, we are definitely planning to settle down in Manila, hopefully, in another year or two. I intend to always remain in teaching/education in some way, either via my positions at the Ateneo, my involvement with other schools, or by working with other educators and professionals through consulting and HRD. We also intend to open a free cancer resource and wellness center in Manila.

YS: What motto do you live by?

It’s not really a motto, but, I am deeply inspired by the words of the great cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead, that say something along the lines of: “”Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

YS: What is your greatest passion?

Doing my utmost to help those with whom I interact – my family, friends, students, clients, colleagues, etc. – bring out the best in themselves and others.

YS: Greatest joy in life?

I feel great joy when I learn that I have, in my own small way, contributed towards helping improve the lives of others.

YS: Greatest pet peeve?

When certain people – out of envy or selfishness – get in the way of persons who are doing their best to improve their lives and that of others.

YS: What is the greatest thing life has taught you in the past years?

Life is short and fragile: Thus, don’t waste time and energy on non-essentials. Learn as much as you can. Give as much as you can. Love as much as you can.

YS: Final words?

If ever you find yourself in a situation where you are not certain what the right thing to do is – simply ask yourself, “what would Christ do in this situation?” There’s no way you can go wrong emulating His example!

Stephanie Coyiuto

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