Commencement Address

Commencement Address

(Delivered during the 103rd Commencement Exercises on March 20, 2016 at the Silliman University Gymnasium.)

Secretary of the Department of Education 
Government of the Philippines 

“Ang tagal ko itong hinintay, but it was all worth the wait. It was worth every tear, every sweat, every slap, and every kiss. It was worth every sad and every happy memory. It was worth every time that I lost you… just to find myself back in your arms again.” – Clark to Leah, On the Wings of Love

Nagtapos na ang On the Wings of Love, at nagtatapos na rin ang kabanatang ito ng inyong buhay sa Silliman University. 

To our esteemed Chair of the Board, Prof. Leonor Briones, and the distinguished Trustees of the University; Bishop Melzar Labuntog; University President Dr Ben Malayang III and the distinguished academic community; beloved parents and guests; dearest graduates:

Whether you are a fan of OTWOL or not, I’m sure, our 103rd Commencement Exercises is also worth every tear, every sweat, and every sad and happy memory. And for all of us but most especially our graduates, even if we exit this campus, we’ll just keep finding ourselves back in its arms again. Because there is something distinctly special about Silliman: you cannot really separate it from Dumaguete.

It seems to me that it is only here in Silliman where the learning environment exerts its influence beyond the campus and into the city. Likewise, the friendliness of Dumaguete’s gentle people that is very characteristic of Negros, is reflected in the structure, the people and the culture of the school. Being in Silliman does not make you feel like you’re in an ivory tower.

There’s that remarkable symbiosis of school and city which is difficult to find elsewhere in the Philippines, or maybe anywhere else in the world. Veritably, like the celebrated heavenly dessert, Silliman University is sans rival!

Perhaps this was the product of what Silliman and Negros have been through in the past 100 years. Silliman was one of the first institutions to build the nation from the countryside—by becoming a higher educational institution that, I dare say even now, rivals the top-ranked universities in imperial Manila. What started as an elementary school for boys in 1901, expanded into a college in 1910, and finally aquired university status in 1938. In fact, it was the first American university that was established in the Philippines and in the entire Asian continent.

Silliman’s continuous growth and development marked Dumaguete’s golden years. But what took several decades to build, was brought down by the Japanese Imperial Army in a day during the Second World War. On 26 May 1942, Silliman was taken over and converted into a garrison by the Japanese right when the school was in its prime. Many Filipinos were tortured and killed within the walls of Channon Hall, and Silliman’s faculty evacuated to the mountains of Negros Oriental where they continued to operate what they called the “Jungle University”. 

What makes an institution think of seemingly esoteric ideals of education at a time of war? What human character is able to transcend one’s most basic needs–for food and shelter, security and survival–and begin to invest in long-term goals of human formation?

How do institutions and individuals keep alive an enduring vision when you are attacked from all fronts and your very existence is on tenterhooks? Only with hope that springs eternal in the minds and hearts of heroes and martyrs, poets and artists, scholars and magi.

Following the liberation of Dumaguete by Filipino and American forces in 1945, the next 25 years or so witnessed the convergent efforts of the school, community and many donors in the reconstruction and expansion of Silliman. Academic buildings, dormitories and other facilities were constructed to “Build a Greater Silliman”. From a war-stricken Japanese military police headquarters, Silliman was reborn into a learning center equipped with a Science and Engineering Complex and a Medical Center.

That glory was short-lived however, as the university’s growth was threatened once again, this time not from foreign invaders, but from oppressive forces of a dictatorship that sought to silence dissent. 

Silliman millenials should keep in mind that when Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law, your university was placed in the black list of subversive institutions; in fact, you were one of the first two universities that the Marcos regime closed. Operations were suspended, faculty members detained and offices raided. It was eventually reopened but only after the forced mass resignation of the University Cabinet, Deans and Directors, and the required clearance from the Philippine Constabulary for each student previously linked to activism.  

What inconvenient truth did Silliman University speak to power as to deserve the label ‘subversive’? What threat did it carry against the oppressive regime as to make Marcos resort to the use of a psychological straitjacket? Silliman University did not allow itself to be co-opted by the deceptive lure of the Bagong Lipunan propaganda but instead remained true to its convictions. Despite a substantial decrease in attendance, the fellowship of the Church pushed through with its regular services and students continued to run their secret campus rendezvous at the Church’s basement.

Even now, an outsider like me, faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges to institutionalize educational reform, is invited to drink from your wellsprings and draw strength from your roster of illustrious Filipinos.

As I walk around your campus, I cannot help but remember those years when your institution was being tested by fire. You do not need to erect any more monuments; your halls recount stories of honor and valor even as the entire campus is a veritable testament to the audacity of hope of a university that was foreign in origin and inspiration but now truly Filipino by destiny and choice. 

Sabi nga ni Clark kay Leah: “Destiny doesn’t always decide everything. It only gives us a little push in the right direction. We decide if it’s worth fighting for, worth waiting for.” Your Silliman University diploma is not just an academic credential; at its core is the shared community conviction of justice and compassion anchored on the Gospel of Jesus which your illustrious forebearers have shown is worth fighting for, worth living for, worth dying for!  For more than a century, your academic community lived the story of competence, character and faith that outlived World War II and Martial Law. Every graduate is seared with that indelible mark which is distinctly Silliman’s. That is your badge of honor; but, indeed, it is also your cross to bear.

And so I ask: how will this impact your life decisions? Your choice of job opportunities? Or the wealth you dream of earning? Or where you will reside? Will you be a change agent in the newly-formed Negros Island Region? Perhaps even more urgently, will that core Silliman spirit become a moving force in the coming local and national elections?  Will you dare make a difference in our world? 

The late former Senate President and Silliman University trustee Jovito Salonga, showed how one man can make a difference, how someone can be the best President we never had. He was a true statesman with an unwavering conviction to truth, justice and freedom. During World War II, he went underground and engaged in anti-Japanese activities. During the Martial Law years, he exposed the ill-gotten wealth of Marcos and his cronies. He authored several laws that had practical impact on various sectors of society, such as the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, and the Magna Carta for Public School Teachers.

He said: “We cannot and do not deserve freedom unless we are prepared to fight for it, to suffer for it and, if necessary, to die for it.” 

In about an hour or two, four candidates will be squaring off in the second round of presidential debates. Let us not be deceived by sweet promises. None of them deserve our votes unless they are prepared to fight for us, suffer for us and, if necessary, die for us. Dear Silliman graduates, by the same token neither do you deserve to bear the Silliman badge of honor unless you are prepared to fight for those same ideals your forebears fought for.  May you be faithful stewards of such great a legacy.