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Response from the Graduating Class of 2019

21 June 2019 by RLMendiola

Samantha Johanna T. Timbreza
Magna cum laude, BSDC Class of 2019

To Ma'am Stella Tirol, my former adviser and our beloved Dean; to Ma'am Serlie Jamias, Devcom's very own and our Vice Chancellor for Community Affairs; to Ma'am Digna Sandoval; to our former Dean, Ma'am Tere Velasco; to Sir Ed Centeno; to our department Chairs: Ma'am Benj Flor, my dearests Ma'am Kabz Catapang and Ma'am Melds Moscoco, and of course Sir Garry Montemayor, who is also my adviser; to our guest speaker, Dr. Vincent Michael Docta; UPLB officials, sponsors, to my beloved CDC faculty and staff, parents, guests, and of course, to my fellow graduates, the CDC Class of 2019: Hello, and good afternoon!

In April of this year, I experienced discrimination for the first time in my life. Well, at least, for the first time, it hurt. I was told that I couldn't be a regular employee in this Catholic institution because of my disease.

Of course, they didn't say that straight to my face. They said, they were "concerned" about me. After accepting me and telling me that I was "perfect" for the job, they said that I will not be able to handle the stress of a desk job. And the demands of a desk job. They said I can't do it--because of my disease. Well, they obviously have no idea what we went through as Devcom students.
I say this not to gather sympathy from you and I also do not harbor bad feelings towards them. I say this story because I wanted to highlight something important today. 

However, before that, I'd like to share something I learned two days ago. Who among you here knows what the word "valedictorian" means? I didn't. I mean, surely it doesn't only mean someone with the highest grade in the class. So, I studied. A little bit. And I found out that the word came from the Latin term, "vale dicere," which means "to bid farewell." So, I'm here to say goodbye, and I thought: "How do we say goodbye? What do we say?" In contemplating this, I was reminded of Tyrion Lannister's speech in the final episode of Game of Thrones. He said that: "There is nothing in the world more powerful than a good story." 

It didn't feel right though for me to just simply share my story, so I made a survey. In the hopes of getting to know the graduating class, I made a survey. You know, just a few questions to see what my fellow graduates think. This was also done by the CDC Class of 2017 Valedictorian, one of my best friends, Camille Mendizabal. So, thank you for the idea, Camille, and thanks to you all who participated! You know who you are.

There were a lot of issues brought up in the survey, but one thing stood out: equality. And this brings me back to the discrimination I experienced last April.
For those of who don't know, I am a dialysis patient. In junior year, I was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease, which was mainly rooted in another disease. When I was in high school, they found out that I have a chronic autoimmune disease--lupus. I have been a dialysis patient for more than three years now and a lupus survivor for 15 years. And yes, I badly need a kidney transplant. 

When my employers found out about the disease, the kindness and warmth that I felt when I joined their team was replaced with knowing looks and "judgy" eyes. 

When it dawned on me that these people did not accept me, I drove home, crying alone in the car. Not because I felt sorry for myself but because I was so angry. I thought, "How could they do this to me? How could they only see me through my disease?" 

When I spoke to some of my friends, they said, "Ganun talaga ang mundo." 
And that made angrier. 

Dahil hindi dapat ganun ang mundo.

Inequality manifests itself in many different ways. I experienced it in my work environment, and it was because of my disease. Many experience it because of their social status. Some, because of their educational attainment, religious beliefs, race, or culture. Still, many experience it because of their sexual orientation. However, no matter the way inequality manifests and no matter how much of a norm it has become, nothing can ever make inequality right. 
Now, I am a Roman Catholic. I enjoy my faith very much. I love hearing the Mass. I love witnessing the sacraments. I love Pope Francis. I also go to the Feast, a Catholic prayer gathering where I also have a lot of mentors and friends. So, of course, in writing my speech I would seek discernment. I asked God what He wants me to say to you today. And in my discernment, I received one consistent message: that I must talk about excellence in loving. 

Honor and excellence is the cry of the UP system. And honor BEFORE excellence is our north star. In all my years in UP, I lived in those values. But I'd like to share with you one more value I kept above those two: and that is to strive not just for excellence so that I could achieve things, but also--I live by this rule--be excellent in everything, but most of all in loving. 
In fact, excellence in loving is not enough. You have to be exceptional at giving love.

This was probably the most valuable lesson I received, out of all the many lessons, because of being sick. When I got sick, and when they said "no known cure and no known cause," I became powerful. I had the power to detach myself from my desire for titles, money, properties. What came forward as something worth treasuring are my relationships--with family, with friends, and with just anyone I come across. And in those relationships, LOVE.
In my desire to love as much as I can, I learned that love comes in many forms, and they don't have to be in grand gestures. Love can be in giving way to a fellow driver or letting a pedestrian pass. Love can be smiling at and greeting the security guard who opens the door for you. Love can be choosing to go to lunch with your workmates to listen to their stories even if you would rather be alone. But I like this version of love: loving by treating someone beyond their sickness, social status, or sexual orientation. Love through equality.
Please take it from me. When you're nearing death, when you enter a hospital and think, "Hmm is this going to my deathbed?" all your titles, treasures, and your traditions will mean nothing. Zero. Wala silang kwenta. When you're close to dying, all you will ever think of is one thing: Did I love enough? Did I love my son or daughter enough? Did I love my parents enough? Did I love my friends enough? 

Mental health is another concern that my fellow graduates wanted me to talk about. Today, I want to end the stigma on mental health as well. I want to crush that idea that I usually hear from the older generation, what they say, "Dati naman wala 'yan." That statement does not solve anything. I have a lot of friends who had mental health issues and, at the end of the day, one need that I see evident in their life is really just a need for love. 

So, let us not wait 'til we're close to dying. Let us ask this question now: Yes, we are all excellent at something here, but are we excellent at loving?
Once, a friend cried to me and explained what life is like for the LGBTQ community. She said that besides the rights that they are fighting for, they are also fighting for love. She said that what they risk to lose whenever they come out is their own family. Very few of us get excommunicated from our families because of our educational attainment, social status, or disease. They get kicked out of their own families because of their gender. Their parents, who they trusted to love and accept them no matter what, would disown them. The only place they could trust to be safe becomes a place of discrimination.
Imagine a father who, after finding out his son was gay, would choose to love that son over a religious dogma or a Bible verse or the image they uphold. Imagine if people would not judge anyone because of their disability. Imagine if we could see an indigenous brother and sister as just as capable as we are. 
Imagine a world where loving your neighbor overrides all other rules. After all, that is the greatest commandment isn't it? Jesus said, "Love God above all else." And how do you do this? He said, "Simple: Love your neighbor as you love yourself." 

Loving your neighbor is the greatest commandment of the Lord. Yes, there are many rules and traditions in religions, a lot of them from human interpretation. But loving your neighbor as you love yourself overrides all of those rules.

If you look at the Filipino society today--the unjust war on drugs where lives have lost their true value, the obvious and ridiculous repression of press freedom, gender inequality, the unfair and unjust treatment to our teachers, those annoying foreign bullies, activists killed, farmers killed--look at those crises closely and at the root is our lack of premium on love.

I mean, just take a look at me. I am a dialysis patient. I have a staggering 4 percent kidney function, according to my doctor. I also have lupus. Because of that, I didn't finish high school. My family and I have no money. I am not even an UPCAT qualifier. And I am a "delayed" student here in UPLB. But I stand before you today, gainfully employed at an institution I respect, with a healthy working environment with colleagues. I am a UP graduate with distinction. But most importantly, through it all, I was and am happy deep inside. All because I was loved. 

I'm privileged right? Because I am loved?

Why is love a privilege when it is a right?

That said, I know I'm not the only one who knows what it's like to be loved, especially by CDC. We are not a perfect College, but I believe love is evident in our community. 

On behalf of the class of 2019, I thank all of the CDC faculty, staff, and executive committee, for the love that you gave us through the years. 
One concern that my fellow graduates have from the survey that I did, and I share this with them, is that we hope to see this love grow more for the students. Maybe we could begin by putting a premium on their mental health? We do not need more workshops or trainings or seminars. I think the greatest force to fight for mental health is to treat others with respect, to treat them as equals. 

My greatest teachers are those who treated me as if we are equals. Instead of hurling my thesis on the floor or shouting at me, they treated me as if I were as good as them, even if we all know I am nothing compared with them. Thank you, teachers. You know who you are.

To the CDC staff, our Titas and Titos, Ma'ams and Sirs, thank you. We do not forget all the times you were kind to us even if we annoy you with interruptions to your work. We do not forget your helping hand, your smiles, your overall support. You work so hard and we look up to you as much as we look up to our teachers.

To the University that we love--UPLB--you gave us the most difficult years of our lives (so far) but you also gave us the most beautiful years. We are who we are today because of you. Thank you, UPLB.

Before I end, I want to honor all my fellow graduates. I want you to know that from where I stand, you all look so beautiful. What makes you beautiful in my eyes is knowing what you went through to be sitting there today and to be wearing that Sablay on Saturday. 

I heard someone say once that we, as fresh graduates, have no right to say anything about how hard life is, because we don't know what real life is like. But what is real? What is real life? What could be more real than the report you're supposed to finish or else you will not graduate? What could be more real than that exam you're facing for the nth time and has taken its toll on your mental health? What could be more real than yearning for the acceptance of your own parents or family? Do we not experience all that? Real life is happening to us, too. It isn't "not real" just because our efforts are not yet compensated monetarily. Our pain is real now. 

And to my fellow graduates, for you to still be standing and smiling today, I honor you. Guys, you are so strong. You are so brave. And I look up to each of you. Congratulations to all of you!

I honor my fellow first sem graduates as well. They, like me, were the ones that had no choice but to deal with life outside the University. Some of us had to work. Some of us got sick. We all failed hard, especially to graduate on time. Today, your class valedictorian and sole magna cum laude is a "delayed" student. The Best Thesis awardee is a "delayed" student. Let us end that stigma that we put on "delayed" students. We were the ones that got struck hard by life but fought so hard just to get back. That does not make us less capable and if anything, that only shows strength and resilience. Congratulations, brave warriors. We made it.

Lastly, to our parents, family, friends, mentors, and every person who loved us and helped us carry the burden--we thank you. We will pay your kindness forward!

I like to end by going back to the discrimination I experienced at work. I spoke to lawyer friends and experts, and they all asserted that I could file a case and that I could win. I was planning to do that. Maybe I still will. I don't know. But one night after all the anger died out, I told myself, why not give forgiveness a shot? So, I did. 

Let me leave with this message: We are all victims of another's poor judgment or actions. Somehow, we have all experienced forms of inequality or discrimination or injustice, and they all root from lack of love. Getting back is OK; it's not always healthy, but sometimes, it is necessary. But why not also give forgiveness a shot? Justice and forgiveness are not mutually exclusive. Loving through equality is excellent loving. But loving through forgiveness is exceptional loving. 

Friends, let's be exceptional at loving. Maybe through that we can make this world a better place.

Thank you so much!

And congratulations to all my fellow graduates!