Graduation Address

27 March 2009
High School Graduation
Ateneo de Zamboanga University
Zamboanga City, Philippines

Note: this is not a homily; but an address to high school graduates of the high school of the Ateneo de Zamboanga University. I hope this may also be useful for all of us. I made this speech as their guest speaker.

When Sch. Neo Saicon SJ asked me to do a graduation speech for all of you, I wondered why me? I knew I practically spent most of my time with young people like you, having taught in Xavier University High School and worked with college students in UP and the Ateneo de Manila University. Some of you I will see in a few months if you’ll be in the dormitories of the Ateneo: I live in the 4th floor of the North Wing of the University Residences where the boys are, but the girls are just a bridge away. I wondered what to say to you, because it feels like my high school was a century ago. There were no computer games yet like Counterstrike, Dota and Starcraft in the early 80s, which you are all addicted to; but ours was the simple game-and-watch and tetris. You go to the mall for leisure, we used to go to the park. You text your crush, girlfriend or boyfriend, while we scribbled our small love note and give it shyly to them personally. You do your papers on Microsoft Word, we did ours using the manual typewriter --- the electric typewriter became fab on my 2nd year in college. So what will I say to you? The gap between us is far wider than you think: I am as old as your parent at 40 --- though I might look like Michael V. once in awhile.

So, I hope you don’t mind if I will sound like a person from the future --- because I will be rightly so: I belong to your future. I know what many college students undergo, especially if you’ll be studying elsewhere, or you’re studying to go elsewhere. You can ask me: what will I need, to go through college successfully?

First, you need fire. You need all the passion that you can muster. You need all the energy in the world; the energy and drive that would keep you awake late at night, or even early in the morning. You need all the patience to sit on a chair and work on a table, not just memorizing as we used to do in high school, but comprehending, analyzing and synthesizing. The teachers of the college are not like the teachers of the high school: they will not follow you up. If you fail, you flunk; you hit the floor hard. In many universities, you either do a re-take of the subject, or if you did not reach the required GWA (General Weighted Average), you transfer to another school. Who cares? --- they say. There are other students who can take your place.

So you need more than just to survive. Those who live in the dormitories, whether on or off campus, they struggle with loneliness and financial difficulties, aside from adjusting to the academic demands. Moreover, in the succeeding months, we will feel the effects of the global recession: many Filipinos abroad (which may already include your relatives and friends) have already been threatened or have already lost their jobs. Take it from the hit TV reality show, Survivor: it is all about strategy. Without fire in one’s determination and strategy, you will be easily prey to helplessness especially when all around you --- including your friends --- are already resigned to what is. The Atenean’s fire is not just for himself. He should also inspire others. He should enkindle other fires. He should not let the spirit of despair extinguish the fire in themselves and in the hearts of others. I like what our Superior General, Fr. Adolfo Nicolas SJ, said: “Make people different, that would be a Jesuit thing!” If they are involve in the social justice, or in the medical field, or in the arts, they end with spirituality.

Second, you need to explore new frontiers. It is said that you will know a student’s future from where he or she sits in the classroom --- where you want to sit, not where you were assigned to sit. The front row folks? Managers. The ones over the window staring at the scenery? The creatives. The ones near the door? The office staff. Or, better yet, those who would chat and YM? The marketers. Those who would spend time in the computer, experimenting with visuals and games? The creatives. I posted this theory on my Facebook updates, from my Plurk and my Twitter accounts. I got 25 reactions right away, fast and from all over the world. Many said that the theory didn’t fit: THIS is precisely the point. You don’t have to fit into a category: when the bandwagon decides to go nursing, should you join or blaze another trail? Now, for the millions of nurses who graduated this year or previously, the job-seekers whose opportunity dims slowly, the competition in the job market is steep. I have several students who are still waiting for a call. With the slump in the market, the waiting might take a year or more. Maybe think of another job, or perhaps, take nursing if that’s what you want, but be different: perhaps you’re the best nurse for geriatrics (that’s taking care of the elderly), or the excellent nurse for cancer patients. Either way, the Atenean should not mediocre: we were meant for greater things --- I mean, we maximize whatever talent God has given us, and find new ways to serve others whether in degree or intensity, or in blazing another trail.

Finally, you need friendship. A month ago, I received a call from a high school barkada. He called me because he heard that a classmate of ours had Stage 4- Liver Cancer and has spread to his lungs. He was a military Coronel, who was deployed in Mindanao. We texted our classmates who were in Manila. I updated those who were abroad from my Chat, my Friendster, Multiply, Facebook and by blog. Those who couldn’t make it offered their sympathies and their prayers. For us who could visit, we organized groups. We graduated in 1985, and last week was the first time we saw him since graduation. He looked different, but was happy to see his classmates in high school in the first batch, and more in the second batch. I heard several others visited him a week after. One of my classmates remarked, “The best friendships are forged in high school. This is one friendship that would keep me alive and happy all my life.” Now at the middle of our life at 40, we meet more often: and what do you think we talk about more frequently than married life and kids? High school. Remember the events that marked your young days: the senior ball, the prom, the research papers, the Greek play festival and the barrio fiesta. These memories will become meaningful as you grow older.

I have presented a gloomy picture in the first two points, but I believe, the tragedy strikes when you lose your friends --- especially when you lose your high school friends. Some of you may still hold a grudge towards another or harbor resentments and thus resolve not to connect with them any longer. When this happens, you will feel alienated and alone. Friendship is the bond that keeps people together; it is the company we need when we’re lonely (even if it’s connecting through text or the internet); and it is the hope when we are sick and in despair. It is not surprising that Christianity is about friendship: being friends with the people you like and being friends with the people who are different from you whether in belief or culture or race.

So, do you have a future? I, Fr. Jboy Gonzales SJ, whom you will see in the future, says, “Yes, you have!” God has plans for each one of you, and college will help you realize them. But how do you survive? Simple, make friends first; then discern your frontier; then finally, keep your heart burning like flames. And you will find yourself in heaven.

You see, I believe that fire is not in hell. And I am in good company. Dante Alighieri, the famous Italian poet and writer of the Divine Comedy, also believed so. Those who are in hell have very cold hearts. But those who are in heaven have warm hearts because they have friends. Heaven is on fire! So, before you graduate today, remember how you started the school-year in high school: with a Mass of the Holy Spirit. God’s love, the Holy Spirit’s sign is fire. It is red, as the passion of love. You begin with the fire, you end with blazing fire. So keep it burning. In Zamboanga, when war ravages our land, we never say: “Die!” I say, we say, “Live”.

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