In Philippine education, the name Dr. Pedro T. Orata is associated with academic excellence. One who championed education for people from all walks of life throughout life.
Dr. Pedro T. Orata was born on February 27, 1899 in Bactad, Urdaneta to Numeriana Tamesis-Arata and Candido Arata. He had one surviving sibling, a sister named Victorina. The change of his family name’s spelling, “Arata” to “Orata” was an arrangement he made to relieve a childhood unease.
Life was hard for the family. The young Pedro had to help out his parents on the farm as well as household chores. He had to sell vegetables at a young age, carrying these on a basket, walking several kilometers over rice paddies even when he started studying Grade I in Bactad.
Classes in Bactad were only up to Grade III. Hence, Pedro had to walk four kilometers to Urdaneta to enroll in Grade IV. Unfortunately, he failed.
This disappointment spurred his Father to make him work harder on the farm because Pedro did not like school, as seen in his failing the grade. From five o’clock in the morning to late night, Pedro’s life was filled with household chores, taking care of the farm animals, and harrowing and plowing the field.
Despite this setback, Pedro persevered. He enrolled again in Grade IV and passed.
Since no schools were offering Grade V in Urdaneta, Pedro had to go to Binalonan, the town next to Urdaneta, to attend classes. He walked for eleven kilometers over rice paddies and three others from his barrio, setting off to Binalonan on Sunday afternoon and returning to Bactad on Friday afternoon after class. The following year, intermediate grades were offered in Urdaneta, and Pedro finished his elementary course there in 1916.
After finishing Grade VI, he enrolled in the College of Agriculture in Los Banos. However, he failed Botany. Coupled with his homesickness, Pedro decided to go home, finished Grade VII in Urdaneta, and enrolled in the only public high school in Pangasinan at that time, the Pangasinan Provincial High School, which is located in Lingayen, the capital of the province.
His younger sister Victorina offered to help him. She completed Grade IV in Bactad, but she decided to stop schooling from taking in boarders in Lingayen. She cooked for them and washed their clothes. From 1916 to 1920, Pedro and his sister walked from Lingayen to Bactad and back again several times.
In his words, Pedro recalled, “Our provisions—rice and wood—had to be taken to Lingayen by my father in a carreton drawn by our old carabao. At first, I rode in the carreton to Lingayen, but I discovered that I could walk faster than the carabao. Besides, I pitied the carabao.”
The family’s sacrifices paid off. Among 99 graduates, Pedro finished high school as valedictorian of his Class of 1920.
Orata’s Education in the US
Upon her Manong’s graduation, Victorina had a surprise for the family. She proudly brought out her alcansia, a bamboo tube with a slit where she dropped the coins she saved doing laundry work in Lingayen. The amount was enough to buy a ticket to the United States.
Arriving there in June, Orata worked grueling hours fixing railways in Montana. He saved enough to enroll at the University of Illinois in September 1920.
Feeling homesick, Orata was excited when he received his first letter from home. However, the news was not good. His father died. Distraught, he started making plans to go back to the Philippines. However, different couples who had taken him under their wing advised him to stay in the US and finish his studies.
So Orata poured his grief into work. He got a job in a dormitory doing odd jobs like washing the dishes. In an autobiography, Orata laid out his daily routine on weekdays: He got up at five o’clock in the morning and worked until 8:30, then left to catch his 9 a.m. class. He worked again from 12 noon to 2 p.m. then hurried to attend his 2:30 p.m. class. From 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., he again worked. Arriving in his quarters after nine o’clock in the evening, he devoted his focus to studying his lessons.
On weekends, Orata would accept odd jobs—washing windows, mowing lawns, and cleaning homes. During summers, to save on bus fare, Orata would walk more than one and a half hours from his job back to his room – and this after clocking in eleven hours of work.
When he was not busy with work, Orata studied for his classes. The result was that, after four years of study, he graduated his degree in education at the University of Illinois at Urbana “with final honors.”
He continued his studies, earning his master’s degree in 1925 at the University of Illinois and his Ph.D. at Ohio State University in 1927. Because his dissertation revealed the flaws of the “theory of identical elements” advanced by the famous educator Dr. Edward Lee Thorndike, Orata received positive feedback. He graduated with honor citations, and his dissertation was published by the Ohio University Press.
Dr. Pedro T. Orata’s Contributions to Education
Dr. Pedro T. Orata went back to the Philippines in 1927, bringing his wife Vinda Adkins, who perished during the Japanese occupation. He taught for less than a semester at the Bayambang Normal School (now Pangasinan State University), then transferred to the Philippine Normal School, where he taught for another semester. He became the youngest division superintendent when he was assigned to Isabela and was transferred to Sorsogon, serving there in 1931-1934.
He returned to the US as a member of the staff of Ohio State University from 1934-1936. He accepted his assignment as principal of an experimental community school in an Indian Reservation in Kyle, South Dakota. During his stay, many of what he learned were important seeds of what he will apply in his subsequent posts. He was further assigned to the US Office of Education in Washington until 1941.
Orata returned to the Philippines to work as Technical Assistant of the National Council of Education. However, with the outbreak of World War II, he decided to go back to Urdaneta, where he met his wife, Pilar.
After the war, he was tasked by the Americans to reestablish schools in Urdaneta. Together with lawyers, dentists, engineers, and other professionals, Orata reorganized the elementary schools and opened the Urdaneta Community High School. This was the first public high school in the Philippines, which was established outside the provincial capital.
They used the old bombed-out church with no roof as a classroom. Three hundred fifty students and 15 teachers divided the space into different year levels. There were no books nor chairs, with the students sitting on floors. When they graduated, the seniors received handwritten diplomas.
With things organized back home, Orata was called back to Manila to work for the Department of Public Instruction. With his experiences and work ethic, Orata was invited by Unesco as an educational expert and was asked to study and report on the Thai educational system. He was later called a program specialist in the Unesco headquarters in Paris until his retirement in 1960.
He was invited to be the dean of the Graduate School of the Philippine Normal College in 1960 and stayed there until 1964.
In 1966, Dr. Orata founded the Urdaneta Community College, now known as the Urdaneta City University, one of the country’s first community colleges. He served as its president up to his death in 1989 without receiving his salary and allowance, opting to have these given to students who had difficulty in financing their studies.
Recognizing his influences in the field of education, the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation presented him with an award for public service in 1971.
Finally, the boy who walked kilometers across rice paddies to attend classes, who failed in his classes but later emerged as an honor student, who changed his last name just so he would not be called on to recite first in class but who became an authority on educational innovations, who worked for hours to support his schooling, would now be known for his contributions in Philippine education.