11 April 2017
Speech at the 69th Commencement Exercises
Republic Colleges of Guinobatan
07 April 2017
Judge Emmanuel Flores, President and Chairman of the Board; Justice Teresita Flores; Mayor Gemma Ongjoco of Guinobatan; my good friend, former Mayor Tope Flores; members of the board of justice, board of directors, faculty and non-teaching staff; dear graduates, parents, ladies and gentlemen; marhay na aga saindo gabos.
It is an honor to join you today, and I’m grateful for the warm welcome that you’ve given me. The Garden Town of Guinobatan is a place of such unassuming beauty, and it is home to Filipinos of quiet strength and industry. Being here—especially on your graduation—is both a privilege and a pleasure. So thank you very much for having me.
Graduating from college is, for all of you, an achievement that is well-deserved. You have worked hard to arrive at this moment, one that brings great joy to your family and friends. I am sure it wasn’t easy. You’ve had to learn your lessons well and apply them in and outside the classroom. You labored over projects and papers. You spent many nights studying—or even cramming—for one exam after another. But despite every difficulty, you made it to this milestone of success. So, congratulations to you all!
But as tough as college may have been, there is a world out there more vast and more challenging. Some of you already know what you want to do. Some of you haven’t decided yet. But wherever you want to go, have faith that the education you received here has prepared you for life after college. Have faith in your natural talents and potential to make a difference. Have faith in yourselves.
Sa Bikol kaya, “Magtubod sa sadiri tang kakayahan.“
I emphasize the need for faith, because life is bound to surprise you, even with your most well-laid plans. Take it from me. Not once in my youth did I imagine that I would serve the government. When I was the age of most of you, I had firm ideas on what my future would be like, and the Vice Presidency was never part of that vision. But as it turns out, life would throw me many curve balls.
Sa Bikol ulit, kadakol nangyayaring dai inaasahan.
I can tell you now: the many years ahead of you will bring surprises of every manner. You must be prepared for your plans to be disrupted. You must be prepared for tomorrow’s surprises with the strength of your character.
Allow me to tell you a little about my own story. I took my college in UP, duman ko po nabisto si Mayor Tope. Magkasabay kami sa UP. I went to UP to study Economics.
I was very young, I was very impressionable. I was a probinsyana. And all I wanted was to perform well in school, to learn the necessary lessons, and to go to law school right after graduating.
That was a promise I made to my father. Ang ama ko po pareho ni Judge Flores, Judge man sa Naga for a very long time. So because I was the eldest in the family, I was expected to follow his footsteps. At that time, I thought I knew exactly what was in store for me.
Little did I know that my years in college would awaken me to the political realities of our country. Believe it or not, I was very apolitical when I started out in UP. Mayo akong pakiaram kaidto sa pulitika. I was shy and preferred to be in the background, instead of the limelight. But the years I spent in university happened to be a critical time for our country. Resistance had grown against Martial Law and the abuses of the Marcos dictatorship. Filipinos were finding the courage to speak out, to fight back, and to reclaim our freedom—no matter the risks.
Witnessing all these, I realized I could no longer be a mere spectator to the plight of our country. I needed to join the street protests and stand for what I truly believed in. That was how I became a student activist. The success of the EDSA revolution—and the restoration of our people’s power and liberty—gave me hope for the future of our young democracy. It made me realize that no matter who you are, no matter how unimportant you think you might be, you can make an impact far beyond your imagination.
The People Power Revolution lighted a fire among many of the young people during those days, and I was not an exception. Isi po nindo nag-graduate ako 1986 kasabay kan si EDSA revolution. So instead of going straight to law school after college, which was what was expected of me, nakiulay ako sa sakuyang ama. I made a deal with my father.
Because I was so inspired by what happened during the People Power Revolution, I asked my father if I would be allowed to work at least for one year in government. So that, dawa papaano I can make my own contribution. Surprise of all surprises, my father allowed me to try government. But the deal was, I would only try government for one year. And after a year, I would go straight to law school.
So I was looking for work in the government, and I learned about one government office in Camarines Sur. The name of the office was Bicol River Basin Development Program Office. And the office was looking at that time, for an Economics graduate. So, tamang-tama. I applied at the Bicol River Basin right after graduation.
And I found my fate there. Dahil my first boss was Jesse, who was to become my husband. Ayun. So duman kami nagkabistuhan. We had a whirlwind romance. We were married less than one year after we first met, much to the frustration of my father. I remember when my husband was asking for my hand in marriage, my father told him my daughter cannot marry yet because she’s still going to be a lawyer. And my husband promised my father that even if we are already married, he will make sure that I will still become a lawyer.
So, I got married to Jesse—as I’ve said, less than one year after we first met—and started raising a family. And then it was my husband who forced me to finally enter law school. He was telling me, mapapatay ako ng tatay mo kapag hindi ka pa nag-enroll sa law school. So, I enrolled at UNC, at the College of Law.
But at that time, Jesse was already the mayor of Naga. We were already raising a family. I was a full-time teacher already at the Universidad de Sta. Isabel College of Commerce. I was teaching Economics. So I tried to balance being a wife, being a mother, being a full-time professor. And in the evenings, I would be a law student. And then I finished, sorry. I finally finished law school after 8 years, because I was not a full-time student.
And as busy as I was being a politician’s wife, being a mother to two daughters already at that time, being a teacher, I took the bar exam without any preparation. And I just hoped for the best. When the results came out, my name was nowhere to be found on the list of passers. I failed on my first try.
For many people, such a failure would have been the cause for embarrassment and shame and despair. But my dear graduates, you need to know—as early as now—that failure of any measure should not be a source of shame. You must not let failure dim your hope or paralyze your ambition. Instead, you must take failure as an invitation to do better, as a chance to strengthen your resolve, and as a doorway to greater achievement.
I passed the bar on my second try. But then I was faced with two choices: to pursue a conventional career in law, or to use my knowledge as a lawyer to serve the people. I chose the latter. I decided to be true to myself and become a public service lawyer, initially at the Public Attorney’s Office, where we represented indigent clients. And later, I joined SALIGAN, a network of alternative lawyers whose mission was to bring free legal advice to the poor and marginalized. This kind of work brought me and my colleagues to communities of real hardship, where our clients were farmers, fisherfolk, and the urban poor, laborers, women and children.
My time in SALIGAN was challenging and fulfilling in equal measure. There, I learned that the law does not always serve the interests of the poor, that you could lose a case when you’re up against the rich and powerful. But I also saw how the fight for justice was always worth the difficulties. Whenever we won a case for our poor clients, our reward was not in the form of wealth or privilege. Our success was in proving that if we worked with industry and integrity, the law could protect even the most vulnerable Filipinos. Our biggest achievement was the empowerment of our poor clients, those who felt helpless, those whose hopes were reawakened by justice.
When I reflect on my life and its many detours, I will never forget how it all started with a peaceful revolt in the streets, when our people, through non-violent means, toppled a dictatorship and restored our democracy. I will never forget how college changed me, how it opened my eyes to the truth: that the Philippines can achieve progress only when its people are free and enjoying their freedoms. Real change happens when we stay true to our values: respect for life and liberty. Respect for the law and the rights enshrined by it. Love of God, family, and community. Compassion and empathy for the poor and powerless.
Every one of us wants change. But if we want genuine change in this country, we have to fight the poverty that causes crime, the poverty that causes hunger, corruption, and injustice.
Your education, matched with your determination to reject mediocrity and aim for excellence at every turn, will help you fight personal poverty. That’s because success follows those who are not intimidated by hard work. Imagine if all the graduates this month all over the country will do this. Such collective personal success is enough to ensure our nation’s success—that our next generation will no longer be poor, and for the Filipino to be known all over the world for excellent work ethic.
There are other ways to fight poverty and we are truly inspired by the many stories of many people and organizations who are at the forefront of eradicating poverty and suffering in our country. To do our part at the Office of the Vice President, we have set up the Angat Buhay initiative, where we have adopted more than 50 of the poorest, farthest, and most transparent local government units, and try to make a difference in our own way.
Because the Office of the Vice President has one of the smallest budgets in the government, we are working with different groups and individuals who also want to make a difference. Everyone is welcome in our campaign against poverty. You are welcome to join us in building a better Philippines. Because we cannot do this alone. It is only through unity and cooperation that our vision of genuine change can be realized.
I pray that all of you, the new graduates of the Republic Colleges of Guinobatan, will be able to welcome life’s disruptions when they appear in your life. I pray that you will remain ambitious—not just for yourselves, your families, or your beautiful hometown, but also for our people, also for our country.
You might think that there is very little you can do, but believe me: you have the potential to change our country for the better. You have at your disposal a wealth of innovation and technology, which you can harness for the greater good. You have the benefit of your skills, talent, and education. Be the brave leaders we need in this country—leaders who are willing to defend the poor and marginalized, leaders who are willing to fight injustice and oppression. The world out there can be large and frightening, but as long as we stand together in unity and peace, as long as we work together, the dreams we hold dear will always be remain within our reach.
Dios mabalos sa indo gabs.
Congratulations to all our graduates.
Congratulations to all our parents.
And most of all, congratulations and our whole hearted gratitude to our administrators, our faculty and our non-teaching staff.
Dios marhay na aga sa indo gabos.