19 April 2017
Commencement Speech at the 70th Commencement Exercises of University of St. Anthony in Iriga City, Camarines Sur, 19 April 2017
Atty. Santiago Ortega, Chairman of the Board of Trustees and President of the University of St. Anthony, Mayor Madelaine “Madel” Alfelor-Gazmen, Atty. Butch Ortega, Vice President for Administration, Dr. Domingo Ortega, Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dr. Manuel Mendoza, Supervising Education Program, Specialist, CHED-RO V, members of the Board of Trustees, academic and administrative council members, faculty and non-teaching staff, dear graduate and parents, ladies and gentlemen, marhay na hapon sa indo gabos.
It is with deep gratitude and humility that I accept the honorary degree of Doctor of Humanities that this University has conferred on me. My prayer is to be worthy of the honor in all that I do and in all that I am.
This is not the first time I have spoken before a graduating class, but it is always a pleasure to witness such an important event. After all, today is the day you leave the hallways of your university to enter a world greater than you can all imagine. Today is the doorway to the many possibilities ahead of you, towards a future bright with promise. Many people call this day, the beginning of the rest of your lives.
Your years in college have been crucial to your growth as a person. The education you received here at the University of St. Anthony was designed to prepare you for the vast world that adulthood unlocks. Today, I hope you remember your teachers, who worked with you so that you can master your lessons. Remember your family and friends, who stood by you through every moment of joy and grief, and who will always be an essential part of your lives. I don’t know them personally, but I am sure they are proud of you and what you have accomplished through your hard work and determination.
It is this sense of industry that will carry you through the toughest times, wherever the future may take you. But as you step out of the corridors of this school, you must understand that the realities of life beyond the classroom will require more than just hard work. It will also require faith, flexibility, and patience. That is because the rest of your life will not be as predictable as college was.
While many of you have already figured out what you want to be: a nurse, a doctor, a lawyer, an IT professional, or a teacher, some of you might still be unsure about what your career will look like. It is totally possible that life will lead you to places and people that you never thought you would see. So, no matter what your plans are, always be ready for surprises.
Even with the best grades, you still might have a hard time securing a job interview. Even with your talents, you might find reason to doubt your abilities when faced with serious challenges in the workplace. Do not let any of these discourage you. Instead, take the uncertainty of the future, and use it to learn how to adapt— to face every challenge as it comes, and confront setbacks with a faithful heart.
These are the things that I had to learn when I was your age. I attended the University of the Philippines as an Economics Major, with a very clear path in mind: I was going to law school after graduation as I promised my father. He was a judge in our hometown in Naga, and because I was the eldest of three children, I was expected to follow in his footsteps. It was almost as if the future was pre-planned for me, and all I had to do was follow its design.
I had no idea that my years as a student in UP would change me profoundly. I was very shy then; very naïve. I did not think I could make an impact on the world around me.
But my years in UP were also years of liberation for the Filipino people. At that time, resistance against the Marcos regime was growing stronger, and our countrymen had finally found the courage to fight back. Later, we would take to the streets in a peaceful revolt that made headlines around the world. During the People Power Revolution, I saw what was possible for our democracy: Filipinos united in the name of democracy. From a more personal perspective, my college years at UP—and later, the People Power Revolution—transformed me and my ambitions. Before that, I thought I was insignificant in the greater scheme of our nation’s fate. I know that some of you may feel that way right now: that your voice is too small to be heard or that you are not important enough to make a difference. But my time at UP proved that no matter who you are, no matter how small you might feel, you have it in you to make an impact on the world. You have it in you to make a real and positive change in our country.
As I mentioned, I promised my father that I would go straight to law school. But being a student activist made me realize that young as I was, I could do so much more for the country if I gained some work experience, and if I did that work in the field of public service.
So I bargained with my father to let me try working for government, and to my surprise, he allowed me to put off law school. But I had to make another promise: I would work for only a year, and then I would take up law immediately afterwards.
Life, as usual, would have more surprises in store for me. I had chosen to take a job at the Bicol River Basin Development Program Office, where I met a man named Jesse, who would later become my husband. And none of us knew it then, but he would also become the man whose experience as a Mayor of Naga City would turn him into a global advocate for honest, transparent, accountable governance, and what people later on called tsinelas leadership. You see, even as DILG Secretary, Jesse preferred slippers and simplicity to the perks and entitlement that went with his job. Hence, his favorite slippers became a symbol for sincere and accountable leadership.
Jesse and I married less than a year after we first met, and soon after, began our own family. It took a while before I could keep my promise to my father to study law. Your parents, I’m sure, are also nervous about you marrying early or about you not following through with your plans. If you ever find yourself in that situation, please know that your parents are only looking after your best interests.
When I finally became a lawyer, I decided to pursue a career in law that was different from my peers. Most lawyers make a lot of money, but I knew by then that wealth for wealth’s sake was not a priority for me and Jesse. Instead, I decided to become a public service lawyer: first with the Public Attorney’s Office, and later, for a network of volunteer lawyers called SALIGAN. In the course of my law career, I dealt firsthand with the grim realities among the poorest of our people. I saw how the law could be subverted so that it protects only the rich, while the poor are forced into deeper deprivation.
Yet my work in SALIGAN was a source of hope. Whenever we won for our farmers and fisherfolk, my fellow lawyers and I took heart: the law could indeed help the poor. That true justice can empower society’s most vulnerable, so that no can take advantage of them again.During that period, I felt secure with my life, and although we didn’t have that much money, all seemed well. Jesse was appointed Secretary of the Interior under the previous administration. But once again, I would confront another disruption: Jesse was scheduled to fly to Naga aboard a small plane when it crashed into the sea. It would take three days before his body would eventually be recovered.
My life, it seems, is one disruption after another; some more painful than the others. The days following Jesse’s passing were the most difficult days I have known. And allow me to offer you this advice: when tragedy strikes—and I hope it never does—you must trust in your ability to regain your bearings, to recover even as the pain remains, to heal and become whole again.
I had to put that same trust in myself then, because I had three daughters to think about. I was also deeply grateful that Jesse’s influence over our family was not cut short by his death. In fact, his legacy gained new strength among the Filipinos who came forward then, and told us of how they were inspired by him. I still remember until now how we drew inspiration in his devotion to those who were voiceless and powerless, and to our country.
That was when I decided to heed the call of political leadership. That was when I decided to continue the work that Jesse had devoted his life to. It was another period of adjustment, and in those days, I never imagined that I would one day become Vice President of our country. But here I am now, proving that the future will always have its share of disruptions. But I am also proof that if we adapt to these challenges, if we are steadfast in our faith, we can emerge stronger.
Wherever you meet adversity, never lose sight of these things: the values you hold dear, the principles that shape your character, and the people you love—the very same people who probably are here with you today or watching some parts of your graduation perhaps by Facebook live or by Skype.
I say all these because our beloved country will never be free of adversity. Even now, we are not spared of the most serious challenges. Poverty, malnutrition and hunger, lack of jobs and career opportunities, earthquakes and other calamities, the slowly rising prices of basic commodities, threats of insurgency and lack of peace in Mindanao, and challenges outside our borders like terrorism and new diseases, are endured by many Filipinos.
These are indeed extraordinary times and it will require extraordinary people to ensure that our nation survives and excels despite the difficult challenges we face. So let us ask ourselves: Are we prepared to be that person? Are we prepared to make our own mark? There are only two outcomes for all of us: either we are part of our nation’s problems or part of the solution.
You, as graduates of the University of St. Anthony, possess incredible potential. Ang sabi ngani kayan, urgaon kitang mga Bicolano. I am hopeful that in a couple of years, I will hear about some of you in the news, perhaps, malay ta, starting a new innovation to help our poor as the Philippine’s Bill Gates, or starting the Philippine’s next Facebook, or whatever else. These will only happen if, through every success and difficulty, you will always consider the future as one of great promise: for yourselves and your loved ones, for our people, and for this country we love.
Congratulations to you all for the hard work. Congratulations sa gabos na mga magurang na halawig ang mga sakripisyo na tigtao para makaabot sa aldaw na ini. Marhay na banggi sa indo gabos, Diyos mabalos.