Meet the first Filipino to graduate in an Australian university

Dr Dionisa Rola, fondly known as Dr Dan Rola says her memories of her two year stay in Australia always leaves a smile on her face Source: with permission C Rola McKernan

Dr Dionisia Rola is the first Filipino Australian scholar under the New Colombo Plan.

By Maridel Martinez

Dionisia Rola was born to excel. An extraordinary woman who has lived through the hardship of war. In 1947, three years after the war through determination and hard work she graduated magna cum laude at the University of the Philippines when very few were able to complete their university degree. At one hundred years of age, she continues to find reasons to smile.


  • After completing her Masters Degree at The University of Melbourne, Dr Dionisia Rola served as the Chair of the English  and Comparative Literature Department at the University of The Philippines Diliman
  • Dr Rola became the first female Chancellor in the UP System serving as the first Chancellor of UP Visayas
  • She completed her masters degree in English at the University of Melbourne  with honours in 1952. The first Filipino to graduate in an Australian University under the New Colombo Plan

Celebrating a century

“I am waiting for a hundred gifts to arrive,” she says when we spoke one rainy afternoon from her residence in Los Baños, Laguna, adding “It’s a bit gloomy today but a lot better now that I am speaking with you.” Reminiscing about her time in Australia gives her so much joy.

Dr Dionisia Rola was teaching at the University of the Philippines’ Department of English when the opportunity to study in Australia came.  

“I remember a crowd was waiting at the airport when my plane landed in Melbourne. I felt so important, then I realized they were waiting for General Douglas Mac Arthur who arrived around the same time.”

Instead, a man welcomed her at the airport and soon after felt the chill in her spine as she wasn’t dressed warm enough.

Those days people knew little about the Philippines as we Filipinos knew little about Australia. Dr Rola recalls, “The ‘Phillip-pines’ they’d say. No one knew from which part of the globe we were, but that’s okay we didn’t know much about Australia either.”

Dr Rola with former Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Amanda Gorely at the 2016 outstanding Australia Global Alumni Awards
Source: Australia in the Philippines Facebook page

Differences weren’t fundamental

The diplomatic ties between both countries was its in infancy, there was much to learn about each other. The difference in English was one of the first things she noticed, people pronounced words differently, but it wasn’t so fundamental and wasn’t a hindrance to communication.  

For two years, she focused on completing her masters degree from the University of Melbourne, while she didn’t have enough time to socialize back then she was able to build a handful of lasting relationships.

To this day, Dr Rola feels the warmth of Australians, prior to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic she would be invited to Australian events and would even get a visit from her Manila-based Australian friends.

“My two years in Melbourne, I didn’t only  gain a masters degree, I also got to experience a different way of life,” she says.

“I can never forget that day when a man on board the train repeatedly asked me ma’am p-i-e I would reply no thank you then I realised he wanted me to pay for my train ticket,” she recalls with fondness that put a smile on her face.