At age 12, Rovy Anne Dipaysa would sit in the back of class and keep her mouth shut because other kids would make fun of her accent and grammar since she was fresh from the Philippines.
Today the 5-foot-1-inch dynamo with the broad smile and braces is leading the way for her peers as the first Early College student in Hawaii to earn her associate’s degree — halfway through her senior year in high school.
“Early College changed my life, big time,” she said in an interview. “It gave me hope. I didn’t have an idea what college is going to be. I just thought, ‘I cannot handle it.’”
Dipaysa, 18, will receive both her diploma from Waipahu High School and her Associate of Arts degree from Leeward Community College during annual commencement ceremonies in May. Though she completes the degree this month, she plans to stay at Waipahu for the spring semester to take microbiology and “to go to prom.”
Her schedule is jam-packed. She co-chaired homecoming, helps lead a Philippine youth council and is active in the honor societies at Waipahu and Leeward. She even works 15 hours a week at TJ Maxx and six at McDonald’s. And she manages to get straight A’s.
As if that weren’t enough, she gave birth to a baby boy last year.
Becoming a mother has led many a teen to drop out of school, but the drive instilled in Dipaysa by the Early College program and support from teachers and family have helped keep her on track.
Early College brings professors onto high school campuses to teach college courses at no cost to students, with credits counting toward both high school and college. The program focuses on students who wouldn’t otherwise set their sights on higher education: families with low incomes, English language learners and underserved minorities.
Dipaysa fit the bill on all counts. She became part of the youngest cohort of Early College “Olympians” at Waipahu, who tried their first college course as incoming freshmen in high school, aiming toward associate’s degrees by the time they graduated in 2018. She just happened to get to the finish line early.
She and her boyfriend discovered she was pregnant over Christmas break in her sophomore year. When she told her mom, they both burst into tears. Her dad, normally a quiet man, didn’t speak to her for two weeks.
She also dreaded disappointing her teachers, who had invested so much time coaching and coaxing her to reach for the sky.
“I was scared to tell anyone because I was supposed to be a role model,” she said. “I was really scared. I thought many people were going to judge me.”
But her teachers and Mark Silliman, the visionary director of Early College at Waipahu, encouraged her.
“These things happen,” Silliman told her. “Now you have to decide whether you are going to continue going forward or run and hide.”
The son of a teen mother himself, Silliman knows how the cycle can repeat. He marvels at Dipaysa’s determination.
“Imagine how difficult it is to come into a country as a teenager, learn the culture, learn the language, start from scratch and on top of that have to raise a child,” he said. “And then to succeed — not just to survive, but to thrive!
“This is where she showed her true mettle,” he recalled. “She decided, ‘I’m going to take this, and it’s going to make me even stronger.’”
‘Whatever it takes’
Life as a teen mother is not easy. She and her son sleep on the bottom of the bunk bed, her 10-year-old sister on top and her parents nearby in a single bedroom in the apartment they share with grandma, two uncles and an aunt.
“We wanted to move out because five of us are living in one room, but we couldn’t afford it,” Dipaysa said.
Her parents and her boyfriend’s family have been a huge help with the baby, Marvy Rhed Aguilar. Somehow she manages to juggle her responsibilities. Her parents never pressured her over grades, emphasizing learning for its own sake.
“I know what has to be done even though I procrastinate sometimes,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t want to do homework yet because I want to play with my son.”
Early College originally started in Waipahu in 2012 as a joint project with Leeward Community College, with funding from the McInerny Foundation. Since then the concept has mushroomed across Hawaii as high schools have teamed up with nearby UH college campuses, with state and grant funding.
This academic year, 269 Early College classes will be held statewide, up from eight in the program’s initial year.
Principal Keith Hayashi credits McInerny’s “huge” investment of $1.65 million over six years with allowing the school to build the program without worrying about money. The goal was “to show everyone what our students are capable of.”
“The students just took that ball and just ran with it,” he said. “We have really dedicated faculty and staff. Everyone is so willing to do whatever it takes to help the kids.”
Bringing the courses to the high school breaks down logistical and psychological barriers that might keep college a distant dream for some students. It started with upperclassmen, then Silliman decided to give rising freshmen a crack at it with a summer course preparing them for college work.
Raymund Lianes Liongson, a professor of Asian/Philippine studies at Leeward, said he initially was reluctant to teach on a high school campus, but not once he met the students. He has become a mentor to them.
“When I got there I was amazed,” he said. “They are very young, so energetic and enthusiastic. A lot of them are really promising students. Most of them can handle the rigor of these courses. I find it really very inspiring.”
“Rovy just happened to be the first,” he added, “but there are many who are like her.”
Liongson believes in helping students engage with the real world. In February, Dipaysa and her classmates went to the Capitol to testify and lobby — ultimately successfully — for funding for the Hawaii Promise scholarship for needy community college students.
Dipaysa is hoping to become a nurse, a dream that reaches back to her childhood in Nueva Ecija. She remembers eating at a Jollibee restaurant and looking through the glass wall. Outside, a little boy, his arms scarred, was rifling through the garbage can for food while his mother cradled a baby.
“I was almost sitting side by side,” she recalled. “I’m eating good food and they’re starving. I told myself one day I wanted to help them. I want to be a nurse to help people.”
Silliman, a former provost at Leeward Community College, believes her determination will inspire others.
“Many young adolescents can identify with her in terms of her financial struggles, in terms of her cultural struggles,” he said. “Whether you’re from Chuuk or Micronesia, Samoa or Hawaii, you struggle with the polarization of society. Young adults are going to be identify with her and say, ‘You know what? If Rovy can do it, maybe I can.’”