April 03, 2008

Reflections at graduation time

Nowadays, many families have mixed feelings at graduation time. It is supposed to be a happy day for both graduate and his actual or surrogate parents. In the Philippines, the college diploma is still held in high regard. For one, it is concrete proof of the hard work and sacrifices made by the parents or whoever footed the bill for the spiraling tuition fees and related costs of education. What a relief from a heavy burden and what promise commencement exercises signify to all concerned!

Yet today there is the realization that having a college degree is no longer the passport to success that tradition and old folks’ expectations make it out to be. Many a graduate faces the prospect of not finding a suitable job; i.e. one that is related to or commensurate to one’s university or collegiate education and pays a correspondingly adequate salary. Many more will face the daunting task of job hunting only to end up as another number in the yearly unemployment and underemployment statistics.

A few heart-rending examples: graduates in such esoteric courses as molecular biology, electronic engineering, even physics, ending up in call centers, being absorbed into the sales force of cell phone companies or shifting careers to become nurses-for-export. Worse, very many women college graduates become overseas Filipino workers doing menial household work while the men become factory workers doing the dirtiest, cheapest and most unsafe kinds of jobs.

Thirty three years ago, a couple of years after martial law was declared, I too graduated from the University of the Philippines. Frankly, I wouldn’t have bothered attending the general commencement exercises if fate hadn’t intervened and I ended up giving the valedictory address -- though I certainly wasn’t top of the graduating class.

As luck would have it, the real valedictorian was a brilliant though unassuming Engineering student with a weighted average of 1.05. He turned down the honor of addressing the graduating class and all the faculty and administration officials assembled because, according to then Dean of Student Affairs, Prof. Armando Malay, he didn’t know what message to impart. That gave Dean Malay the opening to choose who he felt would be better “qualified”.

The good dean offered it to me. I had returned to school to finish a Bachelor of Arts course that had been interrupted by a short stint in the underground movement upon the declaration of martial law and a subsequent four-month detention in a military camp. He gambled that I somehow personified the activist cum scholar “tradition” of UP and would have enough gumption to say something worthwhile despite the very real constraints on freedom of speech that had been imposed.

I distinctly remember asking the help of three people. The first was a close friend, the man I eventually married. Another was Mr. Sammy Rodriguez, a putative high-ranking official of the old Communist Party of the Philippines and a long-time political prisoner even before martial law who the Dictator Marcos had rearrested. And the last was the then Collegian editor, now faculty member at the UP School of Economics.

My friend advised me to be short and sweet; that is, to try to deliver something relevant, straightforward, and yes, defiant, that my fellow graduates would appreciate if not fully identify with. We agreed I would elaborate on the need to sustain the legacy of UP, as the premier state university and the hotbed of student activism in the 70s, by emphasizing the virtue of personal and professional integrity in the future workplace and the commitment to “serve the people” as Chairman Mao had inspired countless youth in China and the world over to do.

Mr. Rodriguez advised me to be courageous and honest, virtues that he himself embodied. The Collegian editor translated my plain speech written in English to what the UP Newsletter subsequently described as lilting Filipino prose.

It was a fearsome time that called forth from the people, most especially the youth, much fearlessness. It had to begin by breaking through the wall of silence that had been erected overnight by the clampdown on mass media, on freedom of speech and assembly and on any and all forms of dissent. Graduation time in 1975 presented an unusual opportunity to affirm the nationalist and democratic aspirations of the Filipino people in a climate of fascist political repression.

The socio-economic crisis was primarily evinced as a political one engendered by the combination of a power hungry, wily and ruthless president and a system of elite rule wracked by deadly internal wrangling, battered by an urban democratic movement that raised gigantic rallies and demonstrations and spurred the growth of genuine trade unionism and militant youth and student activism, and threatened by a communist-led armed guerilla movement in the countryside.

In thinly veiled terms, my valedictory address called to mind the struggles that UP students played a prominent role in, from student rights and welfare, democratization in the university, to support for the just demands of the transport sector and the commuting public against oil price hikes, to the First Quarter Storm and the Diliman Commune and the struggle to resist the impending imposition of martial rule. How all this was animated by the simple yet profound admonition to “serve the people”. How this legacy of critical thinking, commitment to serve one’s country and people and the need to wage a resolute struggle for basic reforms was now a collective endowment on each graduate as he/she left the university to enter into the “real” world.

Many years later, I would note how even some of the most jaded bureaucrats, company executives and professionals at the peak of their careers who graduated from UP in the 70s, would hark back to this legacy in invoking his/her nationalist, if not, activist credentials.

Would that the current batch of new graduates turn their anxieties and frustrations in facing a bleak economic future from a personal predicament to a commitment to be a force for fundamental change in our crisis-ridden society.#


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