Noel San Antonio considers himself a lucky man.
He received a stellar education from the University of North Florida and parlayed his engineering degree into a job at G.E. Aviation.
He lives comfortably and wants for very little.
It’s a far cry from the impoverished neighborhood in the Philippines where he grew up. He still remembers the dented roof in Manila that sheltered him and his family. Some of the other neighborhood children didn’t even have that much.
Those memories kindled his passion for humanitarianism and helped shape one of his main life goals — to build a community school for those children in the Philippines who haven’t had the same opportunities he has.
“I started dreaming about this after I came to America in 2006,” San Antonio said. “It started off slow, with a donation of about $5,000 so we could buy materials and start construction on a building. We’ve come a long way since then.”
The St. Anthony Development and Learning Center, which is located in the small farming town of Bulacan near Manila, has about 80 pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students this year. They have books, computer access and their own desks — miles ahead of the crammed classroom he remembers from growing up in Manila.
None of it would have been possible without the help of UNF, said San Antonio, 36.
The center’s two classrooms were built by UNF building construction students. UNF education students have helped in the development of a curriculum. And the education he received from the University instilled in him the confidence and fortitude to go back and make a difference in his home country.
“This wouldn’t have been possible without UNF,” San Antonio said. “From the financial support to the labor, a lot has been done to help the students here, and I couldn’t have done much of it without the assistance from UNF.”
Building the dream
Growing up in Manila was a formative experience for San Antonio. Every night, his entire family piled into a 200-square-foot house made of corrugated metal and scrap wood that his grandfather constructed with his bare hands. It was a roof over his head, so he didn’t complain. Many other families didn’t have the same luxury.
Manila is a crowded city. San Antonio said the memories of his hometown always include children running through the streets, vendors milling about and plants growing out of every crack in the sidewalk.
His classes growing up were just as crowded as the city streets. He went to school with about 60 children in a single class, and they often shared books — and even chairs — because of a lack of school supplies. It’s an experience that stuck with him, especially when he started dreaming about leaving his home to pursue better educational opportunities.
After high school, he joined a Catholic youth group and journeyed across the globe — Australia, Asia and Africa and Europe. Out of all the countries he visited on his cross-continental mission trips, America stood out. He wanted to come to the United States to obtain a college degree, and his dream became reality when he was awarded a National Science Foundation Scholarship. He said his choice to attend UNF was easy — he wanted to specialize in electrical engineering in a smaller classroom environment with attentive faculty — the polar opposite of the cramped school buildings of his youth.
His first year at UNF, San Antonio received his first donation for his hometown school project. A Florida benefactor who had heard his story donated the land for the school and $5,000 that was used for materials and construction of the original schoolhouse building.
It was a good start, but San Antonio reached out to the UNF campus community to continue toward his ultimate goal of building a thriving school with seven different classrooms for different age groups.
One of his first connections was Dr. Gerald Merckel, associate dean of the College of Computing, Engineering & Construction. Merckel taught some of San Antonio’s electrical engineering classes and immediately identified in the international student the spark to help others.
Merckel said he was helping San Antonio with his resume when he learned about his student’s vision for a school. That’s when Merckel started coaching San Antonio on different ways to secure donations from the community.
“I worked with Noel to prepare a power point to be used in fund raising,” Merckel said. “With that presentation, we mentored Noel in going out in the community to seek funds. There were a number of people now helping him, such as our development officer and dean. We got Noel out on the Rotary circuit for fund raising, which worked really well. He had the passion, and UNF helped to amplify his vision and realize his continuing objectives.”
Those objectives were so important to San Antonio that he had to occasionally put his studies on the backburner.
He said he had to skip a project in one of Dr. Susan Vasana’s classes and fly to the Philippines to help in the continued development of the school.
Vasana said she didn’t know at the time the reason for San Antonio’s abrupt departure. But she said she began to understand the importance of his trip when he came back to Jacksonville and explained why he left.
“His passion is what drives him,” she said. “You can’t fault that in one of your students.”
The next stage
The St. Anthony Development and Learning Center has grown significantly since the initial construction. San Antonio managed to raise about $42,000 over the past few years to help build two additional classrooms and pay teacher salaries and utilities. One of the classrooms is named “Osprey” after his alma mater. It’s a symbol of all the help UNF has provided, he said.
For instance, San Antonio didn’t have to do much convincing for his fellow College of Computing, Engineering and Construction students to commit to helping build the classrooms.
“They just came,” he said. “They cared about the work being done.”
He sees that relationship with UNF continuing into the future, as his school isn’t close to halting its growth. He is raising funds to buy the nearby empty lot to build the next school building, and he said he hopes UNF students will be a part of that construction process yet again.
“I’d love it if all the future classrooms would have a UNF-related name on them,” he said. “The University has been so important to me, and it’s now important in the lives of the children there. It’s been an amazing journey, and I want to continue along with the school that helped put me on the path to help others.”