Bai Norhata Alonto, a PWU alumna, remembers how she and other women from Mindanao were sent by their parents to be educated in PWU. Leading families such as the Alontos, Pendatuns, Dimaporos, Balajadias and other prominent clans entrusted their daughters to be educated at PWU and since 1953, at its sister institution, the Philippine Women’s College of Davao (current Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio is an alumna). The late Helena Z Benitez (“Tita Helen”), chair emeritus of PWU, encouraged Muslim women to seek higher education and become leaders of their communities. She told themthat one of the most important contributions they could make towards peace and development in the region was to educate themselves to be useful citizens.
In 1994, in recognition of her contribution to the advancement of Muslim women and the preservation of their heritage and culture, ”Tita” Helen was awarded the Royal title of Kaka Bai-a Sampoma by the 15 Royal Houses of Lanao in Marawi City. PWU had conducted field research in Mindanao since the 1950s,which later led to the now iconic music and dances made popular by the Bayanihan Philippine Folk Dance Company founded by Benitez in 1957.
PWU has always been committed to developing individuals who would lead dynamic and relevant lives whether in their homes, their professions or their communities. The seven women who founded the school in 1919 were teachers, writers, businesswomen and suffragists (albeit of the genteel, panuelo-wearing variety). Paz Marquez Benitez was the first president of PWU (she was a writer/poet, eminent teacher of English and the wife of Dean Francisco Benitez, who founded the School of Education at the University of the Philippines). Following her was the beloved Francisca Tirona Benitez (fondly known as “Mama B”) who served as president of PWU from 1920 to 1965. Together with her husband, Dean Conrado Benitez (who founded U.P.’s School of Business and was one of the “7 Wise Men” who drafted the 1935 Constitution) she and their dedicated colleagues shepherded PWU through the early years of the Philippine Republic, through the Second World War educating women (and later, men) to help them transition from traditional roles (as post-Colonial homemakers) to leaders in their chosen professions.
PWU was a pioneer in fields such as commerce, music, fine arts, home economics, nutrition, pharmacy, nursing, and food technology. Mrs. Doreen Barbers Gamboa, an American teacher married to a Filipino, began working at PWU in 1937. Inspired by Mrs. Francisca T. Benitez, who was then PWU’s president, and Chief Justice Jose Abad Santos, who was Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Mrs. Gamboa pioneered “modern” concepts in early childhood education that led to the creation of the Jose Abad Santos Memorial School or JASMS, named in honor of the hero who was martyred during WWII. “The JASMS Way” of student-centered learning by doing is the model for the progressive pedagogy that PWU President Dr. Francisco B. Benitez envisions as a university-wide philosophy. A scholar of literature by training, he has sought to restore the protocols of an inquiry-based humanities and liberal arts education at PWU and JASMS that cultivates civic engagement and holistic life-long learning.
Dr. Francisco “Kiko” Benitez, is PWU’s ninth president and only the second man to head the nearly one-hundred-year-old institution (the first was his father, the late Dr. Jose Conrado Benitez, better known as “Joly” – who was one of the Marcos era’s technocrats responsible for housing and human settlements). Dr. Kiko is the fourth generation of his family to serve PWU. He returned to the Philippines in 2011 after years of teaching in U.S. universities. This quiet, unassuming academic found himself in the midst of what will undoubtedly be remembered as some of the most turbulent years in PWU’s history. He found himself embroiled in a short-lived partnership with STI (the IT behemoth owned by businessman EusebioTanco) which was originally envisioned as a joint venture that would pour much-needed capital into the school. The union proved to be a mismatch. STI’s development plans for prime property occupied by JASMS in Quezon City created a situation that exploded into a very public fight that led to numerous court cases and much anxiety about the future of PWU and JASMS and larger questions about the commercialization of education in the Philippines. In May 2016, an amicable settlement was forged which enabled PWU and STI to go their separate ways. It meant the loss of property in Quezon City and Davao as payment for PWU’s debts to STI, but the schools remained in Benitez hands and firmly committed to the educational mission of its founders.
Despite all odds, PWU continues with its mission to provide educational opportunities that are holistic and aligned with its legacy. In August 2017, a new JASMS will open on Congressional Avenue in Quezon City. The building reflects the forward-thinking thrust of PWU’s new board of trustees, which includes Mrs. Vicky A. Sales (of SC Vizcarra), Dr. Carmelita Quebengco (of DLSU/CSB), Dr. Patricia Araneta (of the Princes’ School in London), Mr. John Sevilla (former Customs commissioner) and Mr. Benjamin Lopez (of the Lopez Holdings Group). Their vision for the New JASMS is to make it a model of what an urban,progressive, non-traditional school can be with flexible classrooms, appropriate technology, low teacher to student ratios, an indoor gym and a vertical garden on the building’s rooftop.
Continuing the school’stradition of innovation coupled with an enduring commitment to education that treasures heritage and values, PWU’s leaders have taken on even more challenges: its PWU-JASMS Senior High School curriculum is one of the few offering an Arts and Design track (building on PWU’s solid reputation in Music and Fine Arts); PWU’s Taft Avenue campus now hosts the Institute for Heritage, Culture & the Arts as well as the Asian Media Information and Communication Center or AMIC (which,in consortium with Asian Institute of Journalism,moved to PWU from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore). They join on campus older units like the Institute of Family Life and the Center for Gender Equity. These innovative initiatives focused on nation-building are the sort of endeavors that PWU has been known for and which its leaders have committed to pursue.
To celebrate its new lease on life, PWU alumni gathered together in the historic Taft Avenue campus in February 2017 for a “Grand Alumni Homecoming.” Alumni from PWU and JASMS (Manila and QC), PWC (Davao and Iloilo) and the Bayanihan Folk Dance Company celebrated their schools’ resilience and paid tribute to Helena Z Benitez who had passed away the previous year, just a month after celebrating her 102nd birthday.
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