Friday, August 20, 2021

[Speech] Message to the students of UP Manila College of Arts and Sciences

Speech delivered on the occasion of UP Manila College of Arts and Sciences' Araw ng Pagkilala 2021 on August 20, 2021

My esteemed colleagues; my friends in the UP Manila community; and our dear students: 

I was a young and naive 17-year old from UP Rural High School in Los Baños when I went to UP Manila. I was an Eagle Scout who of course knew how to use the compass and even at some point how to build a fire, but the first time I used the LRT in Pedro Gil I got lost and ended up in the opposite direction. On our first week, two of our blockmates had their cellphones stolen in Padre Faura, and learned early on that the thieves can smell who the newbies were from a mile away. Back in those pre-iPhone, pre-Netflix days, Pedro Gil was filled with vendors selling VCDs, and the most introvert-friendly way to make friends is to add them on Friendster.

Diliman, they said, was much better campus, but we eventually warmed up to UP Manila, including our favorite part of it - Robinsons Mall. I visited the Booksale every week hoping that I would be lucky enough to find good books, encouraged by the Haruki Murakami novel - Norwegian Wood - that I bought for 50 pesos. I usually did, and I made my policy to read one novel every week. 

As an Intarmed student, I actually spent a lot of time in AS, which during our time had the strictest security guards ever. I don’t remember what my grades were, except for 2.5 in Calculus. We had colorful, unforgettable professors, like the legendary Ma’am Gavino, our History instructor Sir Esguerra, our Humanities Ma’am Achanzar, and many more. Now that I’m a UP faculty now myself, I realize that when you’re standing in front of the class you can see everything that students are doing - from watching NBA games to scrolling their Twitter and reading books totally unrelated to the course. And all I could do is to tell myself: Karma is real. 

It would be nice to continue my reminiscence because I want to impart to you a glimpse of how your college memories can be a source of strength, joy, and even laughter, in the future. Maybe today, you know even the student number of your crushes, but someday, it will feel like an achievement to remember your own. 

But at the same time, I know that we are faced with more pressing natters today, amid this pandemic and the seemingly endless cycle of lockdowns. When I graduated in 2010, a new president was about to take office, but we did not have the sense of uncertainty we have today. Certainly, we did not have this pandemic that has changed every aspect of our life, including this ceremony during which I cannot even see you face to face.

And so I cannot be a guide for what’s going on today, the way a mountain guide knows the way and takes hikers up the summit. Some might use the metaphor “we are on the same boat” and that’s quite apt since the word ‘barkada’ literally means the same: people of the same barko. But I also know that the pandemic has divided the privileged and the under-privileged, and has exposed the inequity of the world - including in your personal lives. Many of you have struggled greatly over the past one and a half years, which is why surely, this moment comes with a mix of emotions, and I do not feel adequate to the task to giving justice to all of them.

Even so, along my journey in UP Manila and beyond, I would like to remind you of three things that I learned along the way that might be of help as you continue your journeys through and beyond this pandemic. 

First, always remember that you are plural. Do you remember that UPCAT application form when you had so many choices but in the end you can only take one? Life is not like that. You do not have to choose just one thing. You can choose two. Or three. Or more. Of course you have your chosen career path but don’t let your life be limited to that. Don’t let your career define you. Some of you are singers, dancers, writers, actors, activists, leaders in different fields. Do not let go of your hobbies and passions. Hold on to them like a child misses their blanket. Nothing is too petty or unimportant if it means so much to you. My mountain climbing has sustained me throughout of my life, giving me so much confidence and strength. I refuse to downplay it. It’s an integral part of my life, co-equal with my writing, with my research. They all make me who I am, and none is less important than the other. Because I loved medicine and the social sciences, I tried to find a way of combine them and I’m so happy with my career as a medical anthropologist. There are ways to mix and match your strengths, talents, passions especially with today’s technologies that have enabled you to pursue more. I actually composed songs for the musical we produced as part of Ma’am Achanzar’s Humanities 2 class and maybe someday I would like try that again too. 

Plurality, by the way, can extend to identity - you can be a proud Mindanao, Bicolano, Palaweño, Filipino, Asian, and whatever else you end up, all at the same time. At a time when we are forced to choose between different identities - race, ethnicity, gender, or even professional affiliation - we can be all of the above - or none; we should welcome plurality not as a threat, but as a fulfillment, of our individuality. I. 

Second, always remember that as individuals, you are promising, and you continue to be. No matter how prestigious your university is, no matter how big your achievements are, it is easy nowadays to feel incomplete and inadequate. Maybe today you feel that you’ve underachieved, especially if you compare yourself to others. Maybe you felt that because of the pandemic you didn’t learn enough. 

But let me tell you that the best way to look at achievement, and at ourselves, is not as a product, but a process. The UP education did not take you to the top of the mountain, it did not even take you to a certain trail, but it taught you some skills how to climb, how to find your way, and if needed, how to find your way back. And along the way, learning has to continue, like a Final Fantasy character that keeps leveling up. How can you live up to that promise, in ways that avoid what BTS calls an “imaginary swamp” of worries and expectations? In my experience, aside from the medical training itself which taught me so much about life and death, traveling has given me perspectives that I needed to know myself and to understand the human condition better. Once the pandemic ends, travel as much as you can - but do not travel so the world can see you, but so you can see the world. There are different ways to travel - you can travel to Japan and just eat matcha and sushi all day. I don’t mind that! But you can also go to the country and learn about its history, its society, not just their technological marvels but also their societal challenges. 

Aside from traveling, I would add reading, which is like traveling with your imagination.

And then there’s practice, which is essential for any endeavor in life. When I started writing a column, it took me four days to write one piece. Nowadays, it takes me around four hours. When I started writing academic papers, it took me over a year to write one piece. This year alone, I've published 12. Keep practicing, and you will get there.

Finally, you are not just plural, you are just promising, but you are powerful. I know that this is hard to say in the middle of a pandemic, it might come off as naive.

But only if we define power in narrow terms. There are things we can do, both as individuals, and as communities. I have not solved the vexing problems of vaccine inequity and hesitancy, but I’ve managed to convince at least 13 individuals - family and friends - to get vaccinated, by giving them information and vouching for the safety of vaccines. As UP graduates, you have the power to influence the people around you. On whether or not to take a vaccine. On who to vote. On even what to eat; how to leave healthy, non-toxic, positive days. To those of you who will be pursuing health related careers, you have a special power to help other people. We will not always be able offer cure, but we can always offer care. 

Sometimes, our power lies in the most underrated life skills, like encouraging people, introducing them to new experiences, and mentoring them. Somewhere in your high school, or hometown, there’s a kid looking up to you, and your words can mean so much to them. Somewhere in your community there’s a pantry, a local initiative, and your support can mean so much as well. 

Remember, you are powerful because kindness is powerful. 

And you are powerful because science is powerful and those of you who will pursue the track of research can improve people’s lives. The very fact that it’s possible to protect yourself with vaccines today speaks of the power of research to improve people’s lives and we should never take that for granted. By science, of course I also mean the social sciences, which can diagnose the ills of society, and point out to the structural barriers to our people’s health and happiness. Science can be used in the service of authoritarianism, of corporate greed, of human vanity, but with moral courage, it can also be used to challenge them, by pointing out its weaknesses, contradictions, and harm - and pointing towards sustainability and equity in our ways of life.

Finally, you are powerful because arts are just as powerful and important as the sciences. During the lockdown, when medicine failed, it is the music, film, TV series; the stories and songs that kept us going, offering the beauty and hope that reminded that the world is still worth fighting for. UP Manila is the health sciences university, and AS fits right in the middle because the arts can heal. The arts can heal, and again with courage, they can also heal our nation. 

And so, our dear students, my colleagues and friends, fellow learners, let me end not with a challenge, but with a benediction: 

May your plurality allow you to maximize your life and realize your potential.

May your promise translate to the betterment of your families, communities, and our beloved country. 

And may the power that lies within each of you lead to a better, safer, fairer, and more inclusive world. 

Amherst, Massachusetts - August 4, 2021

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