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OFWs in Saipan incur debts to pursue nursing for a ‘better’ life

February 18, 2009 12:53pm
SAN JOSE, Saipan – At 48, Susan T. Ballesteros doesn’t mind being the oldest in her class of nursing students who are mostly overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in the US island of Saipan.

“I am doing this for my children’s future," the mother of three told GMANews.TV.

The promise of a high-paying and in-demand job in the US drives Ballesteros and her fellow OFWs to work eight hours in the day, attend nursing school for four hours at night six days a week, and take care of their family in between.

Although earning only a little over the current minimum wage of $4.05 an hour as a sales representative and has a family to support, Ballesteros – just like many of her OFW classmates - braved enrolling in a two-year Associate of Nursing degree course which charges $28,000 a year for a total of $56,000 in two years.

This is equivalent to over 2.6 million Philippine pesos, which could already pay for her and her whole family’s enrollment to medical school in the Philippines.

The school where she is taking up nursing allows her and her fellow OFWs to pay only as little as $300 a month in tuition until they graduate, and pay the remaining amount only when they are already working.

This means in two years in school, Ballesteros would be paying only at least $7,200 and by the time she graduates, she’s already in debt by $48,800 or about 2.29 million Philippine pesos.


But just like most of the OFWs on Saipan who are taking up nursing, Ballesteros hopes her determination would pay off — even if it means incurring a huge debt long before she could say goodbye to her current job in sales and marketing and work as a registered nurse.

“Kumapit na rin ako sa patalim [literally, to cling to a knife’s blade]," said Ballesteros.

She believes the school will be able to help her take and pass the National Council Licensure Examination or NCLEX and find an immediate job in the United States mainland, so she could earn more for her family and pay her tuition.

The school she attends – the University of Loyola at CNMI – opened only in September 2008 and none of its transferee graduates has taken the NCLEX or found a nursing job yet. The University of Loyola at CNMI is owned by Dr. Johnny Fong, a US citizen of Filipino and Chinese descent.

Another nursing school in Saipan – Emmanuel College – is founded by a US citizen who was born and raised in the Philippines, Sedy Demesa.

Joan Cabrera, a Filipina who is an immediate relative (IR) of a US citizen, recently graduated from Emmanuel College’s 11-month practical nursing course and is now self-studying for the NCLEX. Nurses need to take and pass the NCLEX to be able to work in any US state or territory like Saipan.

Recession-proof job

Just like Ballesteros, Cabrera wants a better life for her four children, who are 5 to 15 years old.

“It’s a practical course, and nurses are in-demand not only in the US but other countries too. Nursing is a recession-proof job," said Cabrera, who works as a singer and part-time features writer on Saipan. For a year, she also worked as a make up artist to provide for her children.

Ballesteros and Cabrera are only two of the OFWs in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) juggling their work, nursing studies and family life. Other Filipinos enrolled at these nursing schools have foreign student permits and are therefore not allowed to work in the CNMI while studying.

Saipan, the capital of the 14-island CNMI, has three educational institutions offering nursing and many of the students are OFWs. The government-run Northern Marianas College, as well as the University of Loyola at CNMI, offers a two-year Associate in Nursing degree, while Emmanuel College offers an 11-month practical nursing course.

But unlike NMC which has graduated students now working as nurses at the Commonwealth Health Center and abroad, the two new private schools have yet to see graduates working in their chosen nursing career.

Family support needed

Ballesteros, of Pasay City, said she’s lucky to have a very supportive husband, also an OFW, who takes care of their three children during the hours she’s at school.

“Mahirap na ang buhay ngayon. Dahil contract workers tayo, taon-taon mong iisipin kung ire-renew pa ang contract mo ng amo mo. Lalo na sa tulad kong matanda na, dapat marami ka pang ibang alam gawin (Life is now hard. Because we’re contract workers, every year we wonder whether our employers would renew our contract. Especially for those who are already old like me, you should know a lot of other things to do)," she said.

Ballesteros, just like her fellow OFWs who are studying nursing at night, wants a life better to support a family. Her husband barely gets salary from his employer.

“Tinutulungan din ako ng sister ko na nasa Florida para bayaran yung monthly tuition. Kung hindi dahil sa kanya, baka di ko kayang mag-aral uli (My sister who is in Florida helps me pay for the monthly tuition. If not for her, I may not be able to study again)," she said.

She said once she earns her associate in nursing degree and pass the NCLEX, she will work on the US mainland where she said she can earn as much as $20 an hour or more.

Right now, Ballesteros is focused on finishing her studies, while Cabrera reviews for the NCLEX.

“I’m applying for a license to practice in Oklahoma," Cabrera said. She said studying practical nursing had cost her $12,500, which is still much lesser than the rates charged at another private nursing school on Saipan.

And while the CNMI economy is getting worse and OFWs cling on to their job, nursing schools are also trying to attract more students. Emmanuel College, for example, is considering giving financial assistance for its current students, according to its president, Mark Mendiola.

But financial relief may have come too late, as the latest batch of nursing students enrolled on Saipan’s three nursing schools – many of them OFWs — were much fewer than previous enrollment figures. - GMANews.TV
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