Just the other day, in the midst of finishing my university clearance, I went out to lie in the Sunken Garden under the scorching summer sun, because I was afflicted with a sadness I had to dramatize.
It is bittersweet to be graduating tomorrow when the life of one student was snuffed out before she could even begin. The irony is not lost on me; I will leave the hallowed halls of UP bearing proof of my achievement, of the undeniable fact of my completion, while Kristel Tejada will forever remain a memory—an iskolar ng bayan who could have had her whole life ahead of her. If only, if only.
This is an example of how UP is not perfect, how it is not the idealized institution which everyone thinks it is. UP, like every other school, will always be grappling with the basic and primeval notion of survival, of staying afloat in an immensely competitive world, no matter the nobility of the principles which inform its existence. This idea of survival bears with it the jarring realization that even in the State U, money, and not the potential of being the best and the brightest, is what makes our little world go round.
That this realization dawns upon me only now, as I am prepared to leave, is a sobering thought. Tomorrow, I am a step closer to entering the “real” world, where idealism is eschewed in favor of biting-cold practicality. I am not naïve enough to think that I can make my way unhindered, with only a literature degree as my sword, and the motto of honor and excellence as my armor. Real life doesn’t work that way, and it stares out at me with hungry eyes from every street corner that I pass, every darkened alleyway, every overhead bridge.
Yet, be that as it may, I choose to graduate with the idealized version of what UP has always meant to me. Because with all my heart, I believe that UP remains the institution that inspires, nurtures, and hones. It is a privilege to be an iskolar ng bayan, now, more than ever, when lack of education besets 15 million Filipinos and counting. We are the one percent, the chosen few, and it has become increasingly apparent how education regrettably remains a privilege, and not a right. Kristel is the epitome of this, and her death has put a face to the countless other youth who do not have access to any branch of basic, much less higher, learning.
Thus, to be an iskolar ng bayan is both a beauty and a burden. More so than any other university in the country, we are expected to give back. It is not an option, not an afterthought, but a duty we owe our taxpayers, our nation, and ourselves. For most of us, the idea of accountability to our taxpayers comes in the form of academic excellence. To those who fund our education, who have offset the high price of learning, what better way to pay them back than by returning their investment, with interest?
I have always been proud to count myself among my fellow UP students. Especially since, despite our diversity, we are united in scholastic clout. And yet, to be academically excellent is easy, especially for a student of UP. The harder task is to act with honor, to ask ourselves if we are the kind of graduates our nation can be proud of.
After all, there is a reason why, in the school’s revered mantra, honor comes first before excellence.
UP has taught me that there is always an easy way, but it is infinitely more rewarding to take the road fraught with overgrown bushes and weeds. To refrain from cheating (which is exceedingly rampant on campus; there are always cases where a UP student is in danger of not graduating because of cheating) to honor academic freedom by picking a subject that interests and challenges your capacity to think, and not because the professor gives an easy uno. To answer the harder questions, because you have it in you as an iskolar ng bayan to be critical, and to engage deeper truths beyond the four walls of the classroom; because as an iskolar ng bayan, you are burdened, as well as liberated, by your accountability to the nation. And with that load, you are expected to do so much more.
Our taxpayers’ money is honored by academic achievement, of course, but more so by bringing this excellence out into the field, into the streets, into poor communities, onto farms. Honor comes first, because it is the highest and most demanding benchmark of morality, and to act with honor is never an easy thing.
As Machiavelli has noted, it is not titles that honor men, but men who honor titles. And the moniker of an iskolar ng bayan is a title we should be compelled to honor, as we go out into the world, bearing the stamp of UP.
I believe that UP remains the institution that inspires, nurtures, and hones. It is a privilege to be an iskolar ng bayan, now, more than ever.