Monday, April 21, 2008


By John L. Silva

(Philippine Daily Inquirer, April 21, 2008)

Through the years, I’ve happily attended many of Far Eastern University’s lectures, openings, and performances.

The university’s 80th commencement exercise this April was by far, the most heartfelt of all the events. Our scholar, Ronnie Quiling, was graduating and my partner Jonathan Best and I were there as his adoptive parents.

There was onstage for several hours, a stream of tassels and gowns and the school color green but when Ronnie’s name was called and he strode the platform to receive his diploma, the moment went into slow motion. Like every parent in that huge auditorium, I felt that mixture of tears and happiness for our graduate.

I rewound the days stretching four years back when Ronnie was introduced into my household by Glenn. Glenn, my first scholar and graduate from Emilio Aguinaldo College, was responsible for finding another suitable candidate from his province Zamboanga who would work for us one year as a houseboy. If all went well and there was a desire for college, he would become the next scholar.

Ronnie graduated from a science high school so he came to our lives not with shy rural bearings, but more with a cautious, academic mien. He pondered the world while he washed the dishes or fixed the bed in the morning. He is also of the Iglesia Ni Christo faith, and they possess a discipline and an outlook to succeed, bereft of fatalism.

After a year’s service I told him to choose whatever university he wished. He chose FEU without any prodding. He had visited various schools but loved the serenity of the campus, the friendliness of the students and the competence of its faculty. When he echoed the same feelings I have had about the university these many years, I knew this ward was worth my investment and time.

He was my fourth college scholar and was lucky, for I had turned pragmatic and less demanding. My previous scholars got a direct threat: You get a scholarship only if you signed, in blood, never to leave for work abroad after graduation.

After a decade though of providing scholarships and realizing the snail’s pace by which the job market was expanding, I relented, and with Ronnie, told him his life’s destination was his own after graduation.

To our surprise, he decided to major in Psychology and not the alluring courses that would have been his ticket abroad. In fact, he has never indicated to us a desire to leave the country. I had become the cynic, while he, with FEU’s unremitting idealism, seem to have ingrained in him the possibility of creating a future here.

Since Jonathan and I espouse an American egalitarian philosophy in the midst of a stratified society, Ronnie and the rest of our house-help scholars experienced a dual relationship with us. They did everything demanded of house help but on many occasions, they sat at the dinner table with us, eating the best, learning manners, holding English conversations, and realizing their own worth and dignity. Ronnie reveled in the democracy of our home and I suspect that FEU had much to do with the self-confidence he brought to the table. He was his own strong willed person and his expressions of thanks, for the ballet tickets, the summer outings, the delightful dinners, were always simple but sincere. It was refreshing to take a young man under my wing without the cloying gratitude or feigned cheeriness that Utang Na Loob (debt of gratitude) exacts.

Ronnie mastered the university’s electronic library, and developed strong friendships acutely aware of the network advantages later on. In his senior year, I offered to help find on-the-job-trainings from friends who had companies but he demurred and got it himself. I sense he will need little or no help when he goes out there pounding the streets for his first job. FEU has given him that spunk. Ronnie, like many of the graduates cheerily clutching at their diplomas that day, seem ready to take a swipe at life and become the backbone of a good society we earnestly need. For Ronnie, the first in his family line to graduate from college, poverty is no longer his badge nor lot.

After his graduation, I went by myself to the American cemetery in Makati. My soldier/father is not buried there but I remember him vividly in that tranquil place. I thought about how he got his lucky break, in the thirties. Dad, having graduated from high school, left his poor Pangasinan town and boarded a ship bound for California. He worked the length of that state and, depending on the harvest, picked apples up north and vegetables down south. But he wanted so badly to go to college.

One day, while praying in church hoping to find some way to go to school, a priest named Father Anthony approached him, heard his need, and introduced him to a professor friend at San Francisco State College. The professor, who was disabled, agreed to help Dad through college in return for being his manservant. My dad’s life changed with that diploma. Forever grateful to the priest, Dad made my middle name “Anthony.” And while growing up, he never made me forget to pass on his “luck” to someone else.

Dad would have been proud to see his “luck” continue through Ronnie and even more so through FEU. Its founder Dr. Nicanor Reyes started the school as a night college to allow working people to study and obtain a diploma.

Ronnie’s career path and future is set. My father’s dictum to pass on his “luck” fulfilled. And with the venerable university’s 80th commencement, a founder’s vision endures.

(John is a trustee of Synergeia, an education reform organization which raises academic achievement levels in children through teacher training)