MANILA, Philippines – In a cold conference room in a building in Makati city, I found hope in the most unusual way.
I found hope in a sobbing — no, bawling — 20-year-old.
Make that several of them.
On Monday, April 30, I was one of the 5 National Capital Region judges at the annual search for the Ten Outstanding Students of the Philippines (TOSP), with the difficult task of choosing 10 out of 21 finalists to make the cut. (Check the list of winners here.)
It is a downright crazy challenge and I said yes to the responsibility, not exactly knowing what to expect.
But I did say yes.
The prestigious 50-year-old competition scans the whole country, searching for fresh graduates who exemplify extraordinary values, academic excellence, community service, and a commitment to nation-building. They are put through a meticulous screening process first through their own schools, then their regions, before qualifying for the nationals.
The process is thorough, and extremely selective. The TOSP search taps experts to judge the applicants who have studied the same field as they have, before they advance to the regional round — the round I was invited to judge.
I said yes — and it was more than I bargained for.
More than I bargained for because the finalists were much better than I expected them to be. More than I bargained for because I did not condition myself for the grueling 9 hour-process the search took. More than I bargained for because of the emotional, individual stories of the finalists, fresh out of college, teeming with dreams, drama and desire.
Their eyes were wide with passion and idealism. Here were young Filipinos who have traveled the globe to represent the nation in various competitions — embellished with every latin honor possible, recipients of prestigious academic scholarships, whose shelves at home are lined with certificates, medals, ribbons.
They are the children of the most common of Filipinos: security guards, farmers, single mothers. They are the breadwinners. They have worked their way through college, have left the islands and the mountains for a better life in Manila.
And they have prospered as student leaders.
They have started peace talks between the Muslims of Mindanao and their Christian counterparts, in their search for national peace. They have analyzed the difference in incomes between high school and college graduates through economics and research. They have taught children from the remotest of areas to read and to write.
They dream of becoming educators to touch the lives of Filipino children so they may grow to make a difference. Of politicians and government leaders who will unroot corruption. Of being doctors and nurses to caress the hurting when they need it most — and to rebuild them, that they in turn may help build the nation.
And then there were tears.
Tears of hope
As much as their eyes spilled with ambition, they were clouded by tears of reality, of the need to sustain their families, feed their siblings, support their parents first — above anything, above all else, before gunning for their individual goals — because, they reasoned, how can they be expected to build the nation if their own families are broken themselves?
I couldn’t help but wonder how long they would stay idealistic.
How long would they continue the community efforts once they are consumed by the corporate world? Until they give in to the companies that will discover their energy and their brains? Until they are seduced and offered the sky-high salaries their talents are worthy of?
How long would these 21 pairs of eyes shine bright? How real are their promises to do their part in nation-building? How many years until they forget the feeling of being on top of the world out of college, of being able and willing to do whatever it takes to push the country forward?
I got the answer in their tears.
The crying that was triggered by thoughts of family, hardships, and rejection was not symbolic of the washing away of their dreams. Nor was it a guilty admission that they would be lured eventually, solely, by money.
I got goosebumps as I watched them cry in front of me and my fellow judges — executives of important, influential companies — and I wanted to cry with them too, but laugh my heart out at the same time.
Cry because my heart broke for their pain, but laugh — laugh heartily, cheer, celebrate! — because to me, the tears of some of our country’s most promising youth did not signal hopelessness.
It was, as I understood it, a reason for me to hope.
It was a sign of emotion, of empathy, of acceptance of reality. It was an understanding of the challenges that still lie ahead of them, in the way of their goals — and a symbol of fear.
The tears were a sign of their being human.
And what more could a nation ask of their future leaders but heart, love, and compassion?
The tears were not a weakness, but a strength, symbolic of their biggest asset: their humanness. An intelligent mind armed with the desire to move and to touch others. Unique, rare talents partnered with utter unselfishness. Success beyond their years but grounded in familial values.
The crying was recognition that life isn’t easy, that the road to building the nation isn’t easy.
For the finalists, the tears have been flowing ever since, the challenges have been around — them having been born in the thick of it — but it had not stopped a single one of them from using theater and music to empower the youth, from joining political rallies, writing influential articles, saving forests, inspiring others, and dreaming.
Dreaming big, regardless of the obstacles.
What was the last thing you did for the nation? – Rappler.com
(The search for Ten Outstanding Students of the Philippines or TOSP was founded by businessman Jose Concepcion, Jr. on June 19, 1961, the 100th birthday of Dr. Jose Rizal. Mr. Concepcion’s vision of recognizing young role models became a continuing project of the RFM Foundation, Inc., the Commission on Higher Education, and the RFM Corporation. Rappler is a proud partner of this year’s TOSP search.)