Asst. Prof. Deborah Mae C. Salem
Many times we don’t understand why God allows certain things to happen. He only gives us a peek at His larger plan when we view the past in light of the present.
One striking example is the story of Asst. Prof. Deborah Mae C. Salem, the Director of the Institute of Service-Learning and a faculty at the Psychology Department.
Debbie’s parents were natives of Leyte province. Their whole family migrated to Dumaguete City when she was just 2 years old. Her father, who was an alumnus of Silliman, longed to return to this beautiful suburban city and raise his children here.
Both her parents applied for teaching positions in the University and were accepted. Her father taught at his home college, the College of Engineering and Design, and her mother joined the roster of teachers at the Early Childhood Department. Their family resided at Silliman Park in Barangay Bantayan where they were neighbors with other employees of the University.
Like other children of faculty and staff members, the campus became an extension of Debbie’s home. Her childhood memories include an unfenced Silliman campus, where both campus kids and “parker” kids played together. Debbie explains that at the time, children of University employees were either parker kids, those who resided at Silliman Park, or campus kids, referring to those who resided within campus. Together, both groups grew up with the orientation that Silliman was their home and every other family in service to it formed part of one big greater fellowship.
With Silliman as their playground, childhood adventures seemed limitless. She would bike with friends around Silliman Park, swim at Silliman beach, and played many other inexpensive traditional Filipino games.
When asked what she was like as a student, Debbie describes herself as average and laid-back. She was one who studied to learn, not to earn a grade. “I was in school to know, not to excel,” she says.
Debbie studied in Silliman from pre-school to college. She is what you would call a true-blooded Sillimanian.
As one who grew up near Silliman beach, Debbie shares that she had always been fascinated with marine biology. She would spend some afternoons visiting the marine laboratory to see their live specimens. If it weren’t for her fear of sharks and sea snakes, she would have pursued marine biology in college.
But in what seemed as pure coincidence at that time, Debbie now understands as God’s providence that she landed in the University’s Nursing program.
She recalls walking to the gymnasium with classmates just a few days before high school graduation. Instead of taking their usual route through Channon gate, Debbie and her friends walked their way to PE class through Langheim road. They made a turn at the College of Nursing and, as they were passing by the Dean’s office, each one of them was given an application form and encouraged to enroll in the College.
With no real intention to take up Nursing, Debbie simply went along with her friends as they processed their applications. To her surprise, she was accepted into the program.
She wasn’t particularly excited about pursuing a degree in Nursing, but two others whom she loved and adored certainly were. Debbie’s grandmother was a registered nurse and her mother was one by heart as she had always wanted to be a nurse too, if it weren’t for financial considerations. And so, with encouragement from both, plus the thought of wearing that elegant white uniform one day, Debbie enrolled in Nursing in 1974.
As early as first year though, Debbie knew that the Nursing profession just wasn’t for her. But because of her mother’s strict rules against shifting, she found herself staying through the whole five-year program. In 1979, she completed her degree in Bachelor of Science in Nursing.
While her batchmates geared up to review for the Nursing Licensure Exam, Debbie was busy processing the requirements for her second course, Psychology. In her entrance interview, Debbie told Dr. Betsy Joy Tan, the Chairperson of the Psychology Department at the time (now the Vice President for Academic Affairs), that she wanted to study Psychology in order to better understand herself.
She was accepted into the program that same year and completed her second degree in two years.
In 1981, shortly after earning her diploma in Bachelor of Science in Psychology, Debbie was recruited to teach at Southern Christian College (SCC) in North Cotabato. She taught Psychology to college students for a year there before health reasons compelled her to resign from work and return home to Dumaguete.
With her on her journey home, was a charming young man named Deo Salem. They were not new to each other; they had met at SCC where they both worked as faculty. Deo was teaching math. It didn’t take long for that encounter to lead to courtship then to a blossoming relationship. When Deo took the bold move to cross the waters to be with Debbie in Dumaguete, she knew he had the makings of a good and faithful partner.
Debbie and Deo tied the knot in 1982. Their marriage is blessed with two sons: Philip Andrew and Mark Steven.
A year later, Debbie received a call from Rotary International notifying her that she had been accepted for one of their scholarships for study in the United States. The scholarship gave her the opportunity to study for one year at the University of Tennessee under its Special Education program, a field of interest that Debbie picked up while still a Psychology student. She then later qualified for yet another scholarship, this time for a graduate studies program at the University of Oklahoma under their Master of Science in Communication Disorders Major in Deaf Education. She completed her master’s in two years, earning her diploma in 1986.
Upon her return to the Philippines, she applied for a teaching position at the University and was accepted for a special program offered at the High School Department. Debbie handled a class of hearing impaired students, an experimental project pursued by Silliman in partnership with Quota International, a service organization that provides basic needs to the deaf, hard-of-hearing, and the speech-impaired in communities around the world. However, the program did not work out and was dissolved the following year.
In 1988, a teaching post opened at the Psychology Department and Debbie was rehired by the University. During her first stint at the department, she only stayed for five years. She resigned in 1993, when Deo accepted a job in Bataan. The whole family migrated with Deo, but it wasn’t long until they moved back to Dumaguete.
Upon their return to Dumaguete, she applied for a teaching job at Living Word Christian School and was hired. She supervised nursery and pre-school children with their reading modules until 1996 — the same year when the Psychology Department was also in need of another faculty member. Debbie was rehired.
It was in May 2012 when her life took a challenging turn. It was moment full of questions, but one that tested her faith and brought enlightenment to her life and that of her husband.
Her two sons left home one afternoon to play a game of basketball. Philip, her older son, kissed her on the forehead on his way out, as he always does. Later that night, while eating dinner, Debbie and her husband received a phone call from her younger son, Mark.
He said “Ma, nakuyapan si kuya.” (Ma, kuya fainted.) She asked if he was awake. “No,” she was told.
At that point, Debbie knew his son didn’t simply faint. Together with her husband, they rushed to the Silliman University Medical Center where they were told that their son Philip had a heart attack.
The brain can only survive without oxygen for four minutes before brain cells start dying. Philip did not have a heartbeat for over ten minutes, but the doctor did not stop resuscitating. Fifteen minutes later, in what could only be explained as a miracle, Philip’s heart was beating again. But his brain was affected. The damage was severe that Philip remains bed-ridden until this writing.
Since then, Debbie and her husband have rearranged their whole lives to ensure Philip’s care. They each take turns of two-hour shifts in monitoring him. It was at this point that Debbie realized that her five years in Nursing was meant to equip her exactly for this task. Though not a nurse by profession, she performs nursing procedures for her son. She has also trained their household help to perform the very same tasks.
Debbie continues to serve as a full-time faculty and is concurrently the Director of the Institute of Service Learning. Her evenings are dedicated to watching over Philip. She then sleeps between 5AM to 10AM as her husband takes over.
Whenever asked how she keeps her head above water, Debbie says without any hesitation: “I have nothing to boast because I know the strength is not from me; it’s all God.”
In spite of the trials, Debbie remains a faithful mother, wife, worker and Christian. She has peace and joy not because of her circumstances, but because of God’s character and promises. Her whole family is sustained by God’s grace and together they pray for Philip’s complete healing, if God wills it.
Describe yourself in three words.
My kids used to call me Mama Bear because they say I’m cuddly, loving and fierce (fiercely protective).
What is your motto in life?
Life is not about waiting for the rain to stop. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.
What makes you laugh?
What makes you cry?
When I see people who are sad and hurting.
What’s your favorite time of the day and why?
I love the night time because I always look forward to updating my son about my day. I also stay up to take care of him.
What’s your favorite day of the week and why?
Weekends, because I get to stay home and interact with my son.
What do you love doing when you’re not working?
I love to cook. I love to eat and tinker in the kitchen.
What is your favorite hangout place in the University?
The Psychology Department.
What makes you blush?
If you were an actress, who would you be?
I’ve never thought of it, but when I was younger I really admired Stephanie Zimbalist.
Tell us a fact about yourself.
I have been consistently described by my students as “motherly, yet strict.”
What’s your favorite game growing up?
“Dakpanay,” hide-and-seek, “kayukok”
What’s your idea of a relaxing day?
Sitting down and chatting with family over some snacks, without the pressure to do anything.
What one thing would people be interested to know about you?
People come to me about parenting.
What song best describes YOU and the life you have now?
Two songs: “Blessings” by Laura Story and “Dance Again” by Life Worship.
What is the first thing you do after waking up in the morning?
Check up on my son.
What’s your idea of family?
A family is a unit composed of people that God has put together. You love them through thick and thin. They don’t have to be related by blood.
(This feature story was published online in 2015.)