Maria Sobina Yu: An Outstanding Student Leader Helping Underprivileged Students, Promoting Feminism, all while Acing Science, Engineering and Medicine

Never let it be said that someone is too young to make an impact on society. In 2020, while many people were still navigating through the uncertainty of the times, Maria Sobina Yu saw the struggles of poverty-ridden students who were unable to transition to online learning due to their circumstances, so she and her high school friends decided to start a foundation to help ensure that these students would still have access to some form of education.


Sobina is a student herself, currently pursuing a degree in BS Manufacturing Engineering and Management with Specialization in Biomedical Engineering, and three separate minors in History under Public Heritage, Software Application Development, and Data Science in De La Salle University. Despite her packed schedule, she also manages Hiraya Manawari, a non-profit organization based in NCR that actively distributes alternative learning materials to different marginalized communities across the Philippines. 


Her work in Hiraya and her contributions in the field of education and science have earned her several awards on a national and international scale, some of which include: 2019 International Baccalaureate Diploma, 24 Under 24 Leaders and Innovators in STEM and Space Award of 2020 by the Mars Generation, 2021 Mga Makabagong Rizal Award by the Philippine Center for Gifted Education, and 2021 Champion for Inclusivity by IVolunteers. Apart from that, she was also an official delegate for the Ayala Young Leaders Congress 2021. All these experiences would definitely amount to an impressive resume, but based on her answers to this interview, it’s clear that Sobina’s priorities are geared more towards helping the community rather than her own success.

Sobina with Miss International Philippines 2021 Hannah Arnold, who picked up book donations that Hiraya Manawari donated to Books for Tomorrow

1. You described yourself as an aspiring scientist and educator. Did you always know you were going to pursue these paths? More importantly, what kind of career path do you envision for yourself once you graduate?

At the age of 13, I realized that I am really passionate about STEM. Because of this, I already knew that I would belong in the academe as a scientist and educator. While a lot of people might put a higher importance on scientists as compared to educators, I believe that these two professions hold equal importance. Without educators who are effective in communicating new and complex discoveries by breaking these down into simpler concepts, then the critical and technical thinking skills of our future generation can’t be developed. 


While I knew that being a scientist and teacher is something that I want to do in the future, narrowing down all of my interests into a course has been a rocky ride for me. Aside from being a scientist and educator, I also want to be a doctor. I know that a lot of people might be confused as to what I really want. However, these areas are honestly interrelated, which is why I believe that I won’t have a problem juggling everything after I am done with my post-doctoral degree. A lot of people will think of professions as exclusive to one only, without realizing that in our world right now, careers are becoming more interrelated. It’s honestly just simple for me. I want to be a doctor because I want to directly save lives, but I also want to be a scientist/engineer because I want to be the one pushing for discoveries and innovations that can help save more people. Through my career as an educator, I want to use this platform to share to the youth what I learned in my field in hopes that I can inspire them to continue the legacy we started. It’s about time that we stop putting people into boxes, that they can only have one and one career only. We must now acknowledge that people can be multidisciplinary. After all, if they have no problem juggling everything, then why is it a problem to you?


2. Since being an educator isn’t a conventional career path for the typical Chinoy, what did your parents think of your choice?

My parents actually don’t know that I want to be an educator one day. First, I am of legal age already. As such, I don’t think I am required to let anyone know of my career choices. Second, my whole life hasn’t really been conventional, so adding one more unorthodox thing to the box can’t seriously hurt me anymore.

3. How did your love for science shape who you are and what you are doing today?

Being in the field of science, most especially engineering, challenged me so much because, up to this day, it remains to be a male-dominated field. Furthermore, compared to my male counterparts, I am honestly lacking in analytical and technical skills because I am really not smart. I just work hard, but I am not smart. 


I am also used to being dominated and surrounded by males, since I usually compete against men in different science competitions. What’s worse is whenever I will win against them, I would hear rumors that I am using my looks to win against them. Not that I look pretty or something, but if they find me to be, then thank you! These experiences forced me to push out of my comfort zone. My love for science taught me to just keep achieving even though it is making people uncomfortable. After all, as long as you know that you are not doing anything wrong, why should you stop just because you are doing more than them? 


Similarly, I would like to take this time to tell young girls out there that they must continue taking up space even though it is making their peers uncomfortable. It’s not really about making a statement that girls are better than boys, but it’s more of a recognition that women can be at par with men, and it’s about time that we acknowledge this. For example, women who can lead a country or women who excel in the field of STEM must not be considered as an anomaly or exception. Instead, these should be treated as a norm that women can succeed. To put things simply, my love for science molds me into an achiever, which is why I keep pushing for things even though it is very uncomfortable. This, I was able to translate from my love for science to my community, where I wouldn’t hesitate to speak out whenever I know that something is wrong.


4. You’ve been recognized by many outlets as an outstanding youth leader. What do you have to say to the youth who do not think they are capable of making a change?

One of the things that people think about when making a change is that the result must be published in big media outlets for it to be considered as “making a change.” However, sometimes, kindness towards other people is really enough. For example, whenever you encounter a guard who opens the door for you, it wouldn’t hurt to say thank you. Furthermore, whenever you encounter a janitor cleaning floors, it also wouldn’t hurt for you to step out of the area he is cleaning. While these simple acts of kindness definitely won’t land you a page in the newspaper, one thing for sure is that these people will silently thank you for making their day lighter. As such, just hope that these simple acts of kindness that you did will create a ripple of change, so that one day, this kindness will also return to you. These acts of kindness alone are a change already. Trust me when I say that we will be a different society when people will learn how to look for the general welfare of other people without expecting anything in return. Through this, hopefully, we can create a system that is kinder for people to thrive in.


5. What lessons did you learn while managing Hiraya Manawari?

Sobina compiling learning modules for distribution to different parts in the Philippines

One of the things I have learned working in different non-profit organizations is that education is one of the most plausible ways for one to break out of the cycle of poverty. With proper education, one will be equipped with the necessary critical thinking skills for one to come up with solutions for themselves. Furthermore, education is a ticket that can make one more competitive in the workplace. During the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen how the marginalized are forced to sacrifice their education since they can’t afford online classes. It is for this reason that Hiraya Manawari started because we want to provide alternative learning materials to these marginalized sectors that can’t afford to conduct online classes. As such, we [partnered] with different non-profit organizations and public schools in the Philippines and really talked to them to know the resources they need to continue providing education to marginalized sectors. I believe that this is one unique thing about Hiraya Manawari since we don’t really have a specific community that we take care of. Instead, we form collaborations with different organizations, and just help them [share] the gift of education. As of to date, Hiraya Manawari was able to give around 30,000 pesos worth of food assistance, 300 reams of bond paper, 3,000 educational textbooks, 1000 notebooks, and etc. to different communities in the Philippines.


6. What are some of the challenges that the beneficiaries of Hiraya Manawari face, and what can we do to help them?

Honestly, I think the best way one can help our community is to vote and choose the best presidential candidate for the upcoming May 2022 elections. One thing I would always tell people is that if a country’s government is good, there are no reasons for non-profit organizations to exist. For instance, we notice that developed countries such as New Zealand barely have organizations targeting poverty, homelessness, and etc., because their government provides these basic necessities to its citizens. As such, if we really want to help our countrymen, then we must elect competent, honest, and kind leaders who have an excellent track record in public leadership and a clear platform on how to make a country better. After all, it is really our government’s responsibility to look after its citizens.


7. In an article that you wrote about your experiences in the International Baccalaureate Program (IB), you mentioned that it taught you to be more empathetic towards others and inspired you to be the one to bring change to your community. Is this also what inspired you to start Hiraya Manawari?

Yes, actually. I have to be honest that IB really changed my perspective on so many things. In IB, we have a subject where we are required to do community service. However, as compared to Saint Jude or perhaps other Catholic schools, we are not [necessarily required] to do the existing projects of the priests. This leaves room for us to actually execute the projects we really want to do. Furthermore, in IB, they won’t hesitate to remind us all that we are privileged, and we must use our privilege not to our advantage, but to the advantage of the people. It is through this reason that even after the program, my classmates and I continue to do community service. As such, it just came naturally to me that if I want the organization to be really good, then I must do it with my high school classmates.

8. You’ve never shied away from expressing your views on social media, and what caught my attention was your feminist stance about marriage and having children. First of all, we all have our reasons that lead us to identify as feminists, so what made you a feminist today? And second, what do you have to say to those who still think that getting married and having children are the biggest milestones a woman should strive for?

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, feminism is a movement that strives to make the rights, opportunities, and etc. of men and women equal, and I would consider myself as a feminist through this definition because I believe that everyone, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation, must have equal rights because this is just basic human decency. I think I am the feminist that I am today because of my experiences in the field of STEM, and also as a Chinoy. Like I’ve said beforehand, I am so tired of people looking down on me in STEM because I am a girl. Also, as a Chinoy, I can’t really escape the expectations that people have of me that after just finishing one undergraduate degree, I must marry immediately. When I say that I have no plans of getting married one day, I really don’t. When I say that I have no plans of producing my own kids in the future, I really don’t. One more thing, there are so many street children struggling out there. If I really want to have kids one day, then I would rather adopt. Furthermore, the ability of someone to love a kid and dedicate her life to raising a kid even without being related is the greatest form of love. As such, I believe that having kids and being married should not and should never be the biggest milestone that a woman should strive for. The biggest milestone that a woman should strive for is to reach the best version of herself and to be happy. However, I just want to clarify that I am not against women who want to produce kids or get married. What I am only against is people forcing women to get married or have kids. Thank you!


To know more about how you can help, you can visit Hiraya Manawari’s Facebook page.

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