It’s not unusual for college students to be up at 2 a.m., whether cramming for tests, finishing essay papers or hanging out with friends. UNF electrical engineering student Noel San Antonio often finds himself spending late-night hours on the computer, but he’s not working on last-minute assignments or chatting online. He’s e-mailing people halfway across the globe in the Philippines, making future plans for an elementary school he helped build back home.
When Noel San Antonio came to UNF as a transfer student in 2006, he was already knee-deep in plans to open a new school for preschool and kindergarten children in the Filipino farming town of Bulacan, not far from his hometown of Manila. It was something he’d been passionate about for a while. But through his studies at UNF, San Antonio discovered a deep yearning to accomplish more than he’d originally intended for the project and to get things done sooner rather than later.
“It was when I was taking Circuit Analysis I with Dr. [Jerry] Merckel that I started taking the whole thing very seriously,” he said. “He challenged me as his student to think about what I want to be, what my main goals and objectives are for school, for my career and for lifelong learning. He really motivated me to move forward on the project.”
In Dr. Susan Vasana’s Intro to Digital Systems class, when San Antonio was working on a class project focused on using engineering and technology to impact global and societal environments, he decided the school in the Philippines was his top priority. He ended up leaving UNF and getting on a plane to the Philippines mid-semester to focus on his passion.
“When I began to think about the project in terms of its global and societal impact, it gave me more motivation to go back home to work on it more,” said San Antonio, 34. “I also needed to develop the pre-K and kindergarten curriculum and to ask for the support of my family and friends.”
“Noel was a quiet and bright student. Before the [midterm] exam, he told me he needed to go to the Philippines. He didn’t tell me the true reason at that time,” Vasana said. “While many students did wonderful presentations, Noel didn’t present. He went to work on it in the real world instead.”
San Antonio’s passion for building the school, St. Anthony Development and Learning Center of Bulacan, stems from his own experiences growing up in an impoverished neighborhood in Manila. He and his family of six faced daily hardships, having lived in a tiny makeshift house constructed of corrugated metal and wood.
“Our entire house was about the size of this office [12-feet by 15-feet],” said San Antonio, now a junior. “There were always children running around on the streets, no matter what time of day or night.”
Overcrowding in the Philippines was a problem on the streets and in the public schools, with as many as 60 children assigned to each classroom. School conditions were often unsafe and unsanitary.
“In the wet season, sometimes we would have to sit in the basketball court or under a tree for lessons because the school was flooded,” he recalled.
Today, 60 children in Bulacan have a better place to learn, thanks to San Antonio’s efforts. With the help of friends from high school, family members, generous donors and Bulacan citizens, he helped build St. Anthony’s, a two-room schoolhouse that opened in July 2006.
San Antonio also urged Flagler County Schools in Florida to donate computers and textbooks. Now, school children sit at their own desks, create artwork with donated supplies and receive free medical and dental support. They proudly wear colorful uniforms made by San Antonio’s mother, a dressmaker in Manila. Two qualified teachers earn $1,350 per year.
San Antonio arranged all of this while attending college 9,000 miles away from home.
A quiet and understated guy, San Antonio doesn’t like to take credit for the endeavor, saying it was a group effort involving many people. But he does admit that ever since he was a young boy, he’s had a personal drive to succeed.
“I just do whatever it takes,” he said. “I know I could do better in college, but since this project is my priority, I have to do this now.”
San Antonio came to the United States on a National Science Foundation scholarship after traveling for a decade as a missionary in Australia, Asia, Africa and Europe. During that time, he discovered the huge gap in opportunities for children from country to country and decided he’d dedicate his life to helping others.
Asked what kind of a student San Antonio is, what makes him tick and how he’s been able to accomplish so much in the Philippines while attending UNF, Merckel put it quite simply: “Good student. Passion. Vision.” As an engineering professor and associate dean of UNF’s College of Computing, Engineering and Construction, Merckel describes San Antonio as a quiet leader on a mission and a person who brings people together with his passion.
San Antonio’s next goal is to raise $11,000 to construct a second school building this summer, add classrooms to include 1st through 4th grades and hire more teachers. UNF education professor Dr. Elizabeth Fullerton will help develop the curriculum for the new grades. Eventually, San Antonio would like the school to include all elementary and secondary grades, with seven buildings, 14 teachers, two support staff and sports facilities.
Although it’s not easy to juggle his humanitarian efforts, college coursework and an internship at G.E. Aviation, a manufacturing engineering company in Jacksonville, he plans to do well at all three. Upon his graduation next spring, San Antonio hopes to stay in Jacksonville to work full time as an electrical engineer — but he says he will always work to help others in need.
“My compassion goes to young people in the Philippines and other countries who don’t have the opportunities I’ve been given. Whatever I have that’s extra, I will always give to them.”