[Full-text] Top FED Graduate and UPOU Class Valedictorian 2020, Mariebelle Balazuela’s Speech

In the face of unprecedented times, we find ourselves having to celebrate our graduation virtually. What could have been one of the most unforgettable events of our lives is now replaced by staring at a computer for a few hours hoping that ZOOM won’t pixelate our blemishes, double chins, and wrinkles; yet as online students, we soldier on!

I may not hear your laughter, nor can I look you straight in the eyes, but I hope my words will reverberate to all of you proud graduates of the UPOU 2020.

You may be wondering what a middle-aged woman is doing delivering a graduation speech. No, don’t change the channel, you are in the right ZOOM meeting. I may represent a handful of, let’s say, ‘unusual’ UPOU students: offshore, OFWs, and workers. The words I will utter today may resonate more with students in the upper-30 bracket. Perhaps, some of you have pursued a second degree, some were considering a career shift, and a few may have had an unfinished degree in their twenties. Regardless, here we are patting our backs for being able to finish our studies even when life itself has given us obstacles along the way.

I would like to share an anecdote during my Practicum oral presentation in February this year (which already seemed so long ago!). Of all the possible questions I had imagined the panelists would ask me, there was one that took me by surprise, and I frankly did not know how to respond. One professor asked me: “Hija, isa lang ang tanong ko sa iyo pero hindi tungkol sa practicum mo. Bakit 1989 and student number mo?” Kulang na lang tanungin niya ako ng ‘Anyare?’. I could only reply: “Sir, kasi po life happened!” I won’t give you a detailed, blow-by-blow account of my MMK-worthy life, but it is worth mentioning that this diploma took 31 years in the making.

Our graduation theme: Revolutionizing Disruptions for Excellence and Equity somewhat reflects my life story. Life was not easy for our family back in the 80s: three of us were in college, but my studies at UP Fine Arts in Diliman were disrupted, for I had to migrate to Spain to study, or so I thought. Instead of wearing a smock at an art studio, I had to wear a maid’s uniform and work as a nanny and domestic helper. Life became my college, and the wisdom my experiences brought also taught me to become humble and brave. Eventually, I moved from one ESL job to the next for so many years, and even though I did not earn an undergraduate degree, I made it. Looking back at my challenges and successes made me think of what Kamala Harris, the Vice President-elect  of the U.S.A. [short pause] according to result of the electoral votes [short pause], has recently said, and I quote: “There will be people who say to you ‘You are out of your lane,’ – They are burdened by only having the capacity to see what has always been instead of what can be, but don’t you let them burden you.” [end of quote]. Not having a degree did not stop me from proving my worth by staying true to what I knew I could do and remaining authentic in delivering excellence in everything I did and will continue to do. As Maya Angelou said: [quote] “Nothing can dim the light that shines from within.” [end of quote] That light was what led me to this moment; graduating with honors is the product of that passion. Find yours, keep it, and stick to it no matter what disruptions life brings.

Without undermining the extent of struggles of those students based in the Philippines, let me note, based on experience, that offshore students have an additional challenge: we live in different time zones. For those based abroad: How many times have you had to count the hours backward or forwards just to match a course deadline or examination date? How many calendars did you have to remind yourself that the deadline was a day earlier or later? I had at least 3 and yet, I still missed handing schoolwork because the submission bin had already been closed. And these next questions may be true for those based in the Philippines too but may have had other equally significant commitments outside the academe: How many times did you have to request an extension or a weekend schedule for synchronous tests just so you do not have to miss work? and how many times have you found yourself staring at the computer in the middle of the night waiting for your group members to put in their contributions?

Juggling work and studies is not an easy task for an OFW. How many times did you go home from a long day’s work and still had to read your modules? How many times have you asked your boss for a day off work because you needed to review, do an assignment, study for an exam, or simply keep your sanity intact? How many times have you had to read your modules on your phone on your way to and from work, during your lunch breaks, or while preparing dinner for your family? and how many times have you fallen asleep while writing your assignment only to wake up and see your face on the page or keyboard smudged with some mysterious bodily fluid? Yes, been there, done that!

Further, for some who have been living abroad for many years, didn’t you feel exasperated recalling the Philippines you left behind (in my case, it was 26 years ago) and the country it has become now? How much effort did it have to take you to relate to current events in a country you do not live in anymore? Yet, we were determined to finish despite the hardships we had to face. Sa mga OFWs, hindi lang tayo mga Iskolar ng Bayan, tayo rin ay ang mga bagong bayani ng bayan. Our monthly remittances help boost the economy forward.  In our absence, we are still able to serve our country and the Filipino people by increasing our families’ standard of living and purchasing power which in turn fuels local businesses. We have become the embodiment of one section of the UP naming Mahal: “Malayong lupain, amin mang marating. ‘Di rin magbabago ang damdamin.”

Being a student as an OFW had its financial struggles, and perhaps this is true for almost all graduating working students as well; in fact, we are the ones supporting our families financially most of the time. We did not have someone who paid for our studies. Many of us refrained from spending on whims just to make ends meet and bring food on the table. We had, and may continue to have, other obligations that many younger, nonworking students may not have yet: rents, mortgages, car payments, etc. Despite all these, we moved on and fought tooth and nail for it.

Thus, if you are watching this and feel overwhelmed, do not lose heart. There may be times you feel like giving up because of any form of metaphorical walls that may hinder you. Don’t. As Randy Pausch once said [quote]: “Brick walls are there for a reason. They are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. The brick walls are there to stop people who don’t want it badly enough.” [end quote] Rest assured that you, just like all the OFWs and working students who have graduated from UPOU, will certainly be able to do it as well. Never give up on your dreams no matter how elusive they are. If you fail to climb that wall, do it again and again, and again.

Now, after this, what’s next? I am not going to lie to you, job hunting now during the pandemic is much harder than before. A college degree is not a ticket to secure a job anymore. You will be competing with candidates whose resumes are much more impressive and colorful than yours, and they are also forced to seek employment. In any case, do not be afraid to get a job that is totally different from what you trained for. Just do it! Learn and grow in it. Hard skills and soft skills are the same all across the plethora of jobs out there. To be able to become somebody in life, pour your whole mind and heart into what you do or will do. Always be kind and generous to others. Despite the disruptions we are facing right now, you can still make a difference by reaching out to the least fortunate. Share what you have learned from this institution with teachers, students, and parents alike. Reach out to those who are struggling. We are all in this together even though we need to be separated from each other. As Malala Yousafzai said in her speech: [quote] “The class of 2020 won’t be defined by what we lost to this virus but by how we respond to it.” [end quote]. Be humble. Start somewhere. There is nothing wrong to start at the bottom, for one can only go up from there. Make yourself an instrument of change. Remember that the ones who have the lowliest jobs right now are the ones considered essential workers. I have already been to where many of you are yet to go, and I hope you can pick a lesson or two from my life experiences.

We are living in a historic time. Keep focused. Don’t falter. Show resilience and determination; just like everything else, this too shall pass. Be open to failures in life, but stand back up, dust yourself off, and do everything all over again with dignity, honor, and excellence because if one is worth doing, it is worth doing it well.

To end, I would like to thank the people who have made this journey possible for all of us: our parents, our spouses and partners, our children, our families, our friends, our fellow classmates, and our FICs. Without them, we would not be here. Special recognition to the efforts of my mother and older sister, who have helped me do all the legwork for projects and assignments that required interviews in the Philippines. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. “Ma! Pa! Isabit nyo na yung tarpaulin ko sa harap ng tindahan!” 

Mabuhay kayong lahat! Mabuhay ang mga pag-asa ng bayan! At sa mga kapwa kong OFW, mabuhay ang mga pag-asa ng mundo!

Maraming salamat po!

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