Speech delivered virtually on October 6, 2021 on the occasion of the 2021 Welcome Ceremony and New Students' Orientation of UP College of Public Health
First of all, I would like to express gratitude to the College of Public Health not just for this invitation but the support I have received, moral and otherwise, from people like your Dean, Dr. Jun Belizario, my Universal Health Care Study Group colleague Dr. Emer Faraon, and my contemporaries in the UP College of Medicine, like PM Hernandez and Jimjim Lopez - who I have known since our Intarmed days. I do not say this just to mention people in your college; I say this because I really feel so much at home in UP Manila because of the support I have received in my various activities. Someday, I look forward to collaborating with your college and I hope I get to meet you.
But of course, I also feel at home in UP Manila because it was literally my home for several years, from the time I was an Intarmed student to the time that I finished medical school. I lived across Taft for three years, and in a dormitory in Orosa Street for another four years, I have seen shops and restaurants come and go - Sala Thai near PUP, Iseya in Padre Faura, Cyma our long-time favorite in Rob Manila. Gone is the computer shop where we used to play DOTA; gone even are the buildings where we used to have our lectures. But of course Robinsons in still there, and I’m sure you’ll get familiar with its every detail - including the escalators and restrooms that are out of service.
Today, with a pandemic upon us, my student days seem to belong to the remote past. But just because things have changed doesn't mean that we have to let ourselves bogged down by the thought of that change. Leadership involves rising to the occasion, and while I do not underestimate the personal challenges we all face today, I believe that by being here, and by choosing public health, you have what it takes to be leaders, whether in scholarship, community-building, teaching, or public service. Once, when I was hiking in Japan’s Mt. Hiei - the site of Ruruoni Kenshin’s epic battle with Shishio, it was foggy I couldn’t see anything, then suddenly a monk appeared, and asked me: “Why are you here?” And I said, “I want to climb Mt. Hiei”, but he repeated: “Why are you here?” And I realized that what he really asking is “Why are you here in this world at this moment?”
I still think about that question from time and time, but today I am convinced that the reason why we’re here is because we refuse to accept that the pandemic has defeated us. We refuse to accept a future where public heath is a privilege, not a right. We refuse to accept that we have stopped growing as individuals. We are here, whether as teachers or students, because we believe that we can make the future better than the present.
But we cannot be future-looking all the time. Being in college, or taking that master’s degree, is not just a step in a ladder, it is a chapter in your life that is as important as the previous and the next. I think that I speak for the faculty in saying that your happiness, your sense of fulfillment and meaning with your life today matters to me much just as much as your service to the country, even as I also know that the happier you are, the better you will be able to serve. Aside from wishing you success in your future career, my hope is that you will be able to make the most of your student experience, in academics and beyond. And so, in 10 minutes or so, let me share some advice as you embark on your college journey on this time of great uncertainty.
First, never allow yourself to get envious of the past, never think of your student experience as inferior or incomplete because of this pandemic. I know that it is disappointing, and even depressing, to start college or grad school this way. I know that it’s almost two years, and the lockdowns upon lockdowns are increasingly unbearable. But don’t think that this virtual platform will make you any less of a student. Focus instead on what you can do, from learning from the pandemic itself. Like a volcanologist who does not welcome a volcanic eruption but will nonetheless use it as an opportunity to apply and grow their field, we can learn from this pandemic, and we can evolve our way through it by developing our skills in independent learning, in online teaching, in virtual fieldwork, and so much more.
Second, use your privilege wisely. Not everyone will have this opportunity to learn. Not everyone will have fast enough Internet; some are struggling to have Internet access at all. Even before the pandemic, studying has been a privilege. This is no need to feel guilty about this, but aside from acknowledging it, one way we can respond is by maximizing our opportunities and using it to improve ourselves so we can better help other people.
Now one of the nice things about being a UP student is that you get to meet people from all over the country. My love for traveling was developed with my visits to my classmates during sem breaks and summer vacations - including my first trips to Mindanao. I’ve learned so much from my travels since, andI would advice you to travel whenever there’s an opportunity, with the caveat that, in this age of Instagram, I hope you will travel but not for the world to see you, but for you to see the world. But of course today we cannot even go out of our homes, we cannot even go to campus, which brings me to my third advice: Read. Read. Read, because books can also take you places. Books allow your imagination to travel, and it can be as rewarding as traveling itself. When I was in med school I used to go to the Booksale in Robinsons Manila and I made it a point to read one a book every week. I think it helped me a lot, and I think it will help you too: To the graduate students in particular, I must say that you that if you want to write your thesis of dissertation easily, you must learn not just to read but to enjoy reading.
Fourth, I hope you realize that “ambitious” is is not a bad word. In the Philippines, “ambisyoso” has a negative connotation, and even “trying hard”, but If public health is grow, then you must be confident in your ability to expand the field. I think we have to celebrate a certain degree of bibo-ness in all of us. A few years ago, I told myself that in terms of productivity, my goal will be to publish one tweet a day, one column a week, one journal article a month, and one book a year. At that time, it seemed unreachable, especially the one journal article a month and one book a year. But this year, I’m happy to say that I’m on track to meeting this goal - I will be launching a book on “Drugs and Philippine Society” later this month. With practice and perseverance, I realized that one’s goals, no matter how ambitious, can be realized. I think we in the Philippines have much to share to the world in terms of public health knowledge and experience, and we must be ambitious in taking leadership in global health.
Fifth, do not be afraid to question experts, including your professors, but do s with humility, with the acknowledgment that you could be wrong. During the pandemic, I have found myself at odds with some of my own professors. For example, I was one of the first to question the value of face shields especially outdoors. But I have continued to engage with them privately and I have refrained from personal attacks. Public health can be divisive because it is not an exact science. But there is far more that unites us than divides us - from the importance of vaccination to our demand that health care workers and researchers get due benefits. I hope that you will join us in trying to make public health a true community: one united by shared goals, shared experiences, and shared values.
Sixth, never let go of who you are. Sometimes, especially in the health sciences, we think of our careers as a series of steps towards increasing specialization. From health you become a doctor, then you become an internist, then a cardiologist then an interventional cardiologist. But while we cannot be a jack of all trades, we don’t have to let go of our backgrounds, the things that make us unique. You can be plural in your career, in your professional identity. This applies to non-academic stuff too. In college, you will meet people from all walks of life, and sometimes you cannot help but wish you had some of their abilities, talents, looks, and lifestyle. Some will be effortlessly good in public speaking. Others will be physically fit and toned no matter how much they eat. Some will have so many Instagram followers, others will have the best condo. Never let go of who you are, because without realizing it, you also have something unique that can enrich you even further if you pursue it. I really loved mountain climbing, but when I was in college I had hardly anyone to climb with. I didn’t realize that mountain climbing was also a key to making so many friends, and I’ve climbed with so many people from all walks of life because of the mountains. I’ve also learned so much about our country and our world - having climbed in all kinds of places. The mountains have been a source of strength which is why I have been a steadfast environment advocate, it’s the least I can do for the mountains that are dear to me.
Seventh, be generous with your time and your emotions - but reserve them for people that matter. I remember recently this celebrity saying that she could get by with 100 pesos a week as a student in La Salle, we were all students before and most of us will feel at some point that we never have enough. But while allowance is limited, your emotions are boundless. Do we look at our emotions as something can be generous about? It is frustrating to see all the problems of our nation and the world, but there is already so much good you can do at an individual level, from explaining vaccines to engaging relatives and friends, on matters of politics. However, I’ve also learned to reserve my emotions for people who matter. Because of my column and my tweets I get trolled a lot, I’ve even faced legal harassment, and it can hurt. But I don’t hate these people. They don’t deserve my love, but they also don’t deserve my hate. I don’t have time or space for hatred. There’s so much to do, there’s so much good we can do. Expand your concept of generosity to include time and emotions, and you will enrich the people around you.
Finally, this is a moment of overlapping crises in our country and I’m sure you’re thinking about where you want to be in the future. I for one don’t believe that you necessarily have to be in the country to be of service, but do not lose hope, because there’s so much we can do in our lifetimes, and of course there’s no place like home. Remember - we are not a small country and there’s so much diversity and beauty within us. We are not a poor country and with better leadership, we can do so much with our wealth of knowledge, creativity and solidarity. A poet once said: “Don't stay where you are needed. Go where you are loved.” In the Philippines, you are both loved and needed. And so always reserve a space in your heart for our beloved country. With those thoughts, I conclude this message and I wish all of you the best in your public health journeys, with the hope that we will see each other along the way.
Mexico City, October 6, 2021