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By Elizabeth Exline
When Tereso Calayag boarded the plane that would take him and his mom from the Philippines to the United States, he was just 9 years old. He’d never been on a plane and chose a window seat so he could see everything. “When we were lifting off, that was the moment I was like, ‘Oh my God. This is real. We’re actually going to the States,’” Calayag recalls.
It was a moment that would change everything. Not only did that flight represent his emigration, but it also represented a whole new way of life that would ultimately take him from sleeping on a sofa in a shared room to owning a home and earning his college degree.
The reasons for Calayag’s arrival to the U.S. centered on enhanced opportunities for his mother, but those opportunities, at least in the beginning, weren’t very forthcoming. Calayag recalls his mom earning $500 a month working as a caregiver in Washington state. For the next six or seven years, they lived together in a room at the facility where she worked; Calayag didn’t have his own bed. He had the couch.
What some might view as hardship, however, Calayag turned into motivation.
As a teenager, he got his first job working at a children’s arcade where the tasks were grueling but the paycheck promised freedom.
Calayag saved up and bought his first car. Eventually, his mom was able to afford an apartment, and Calayag got his own room.
“That was our very first apartment, and that was amazing to me because it was the first room that I had to myself,” Calayag says.
After high school, Calayag found himself putting aside his dream of working as a firefighter. He loves helping people — firefighting still appeals to him for that reason — but he felt he could help his mom more by earning enough money right out of high school.
So, Calayag took a job at a sporting goods store. There, his life changed once again. He ran into an old classmate who was working at a T-Mobile outlet. The friend told Calayag about the job, the paycheck and the fact that T-Mobile helps pay for its employees’ education. Calayag was hooked. He sent over his resumé, got hired and started what would become a new chapter in life.
The next two years passed quickly as Calayag settled into his new role. Eventually, though, he began to get antsy. He missed the challenge and discovery that school offered him. “Education was something I’ve always wanted to finish because it was important to me,” he says.
Calayag began to explore his options. At that point, he couldn’t afford to stop working and go to school full time. He needed a university that could accommodate his work schedule and that offered options when it came to degrees. As Calayag puts it, he knew he wanted to take the next step in his education, but he didn’t know which direction to go.
“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I wanted to get into something that would help me in the future to find jobs.”
For Calayag, the Bachelor of Science in Information Technology at University of Phoenix fit that bill. And, speaking of bills, T-Mobile picked up the tab for his degree.
This was an important motivator for Calayag, whose enthusiasm for being both a full-time employee and a full-time student began to wane during the second year of his program. He had recently gotten married, and his wife, Annie, stepped in to offer the support he needed.
“I encouraged Tereso to keep going when he felt like giving up because I knew how much it meant to him to be a college graduate,” Annie says. “I kept reminding him that no matter how hard the process might be, it would all be worth it in the end because he would be able to say that he reached his goals and could cross this huge feat off of his list.”
The couple had married in January 2020, just before the pandemic hit. While lockdowns meant more time together for a lot of families, the Calayags had to give up some of that time so Tereso could study. This was tough, Annie acknowledges, but they both kept their eye on the prize
“The outcome was significantly more important than missing a few dinners together,” Annie says.
Tereso agrees. “You just have to do it,” he says. “I guess that’s easier said than done, but you have to try to make time and sacrifice.”
In March 2022, all the long nights, the time away from his mom (whom he couldn’t visit as often due to demands of work and school) and the evenings spent apart from his wife were justified when Calayag’s diploma arrived.
“When I finished that last class and got that diploma in the mail, I broke down,” he recalls, echoing the sentiments of many other graduates who’ve felt stretched thin.
But the payoff included more than the diploma and the promise of career enhancement down the road. It also included Calayag’s marriage and the home he and Annie purchased together. To Calayag, these achievements justified the long stretches of hard work.
“Life can be exciting, and then it’s not, and then it gets exciting again,” he says. “It always balances itself out. That’s why I live by the motto, ‘Just go with the flow,’ because it’ll turn out how you want it to be anyway.”
Calayag has come a long way from that kid on a plane so many years ago. So has his mom, for that matter: She now owns her own business. And all that cumulative success means that Calayag is excited for the future. He’s considering a career in product management or even software engineering. He likes working with people, after all, and he likes solving problems.
Annie, reflecting on her husband’s journey and future, sums it up best. “Tereso is truly an inspiration to all around him,” she says.
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