[OPINION] Why I want to leave UP – and why I might stay
I remember the moment. I was in a jeepney in the probinsya (province) – you know, the packed-like-sardines kind with a wooden bench in the middle and men dangling on the back, sides, and roof. Sardines have better wiggle room.
I was finishing a master's of public health degree in California, and I was doing fieldwork for 3 months in Western Visayas. The fieldwork was a chance to evaluate mental healthcare. But more than that, it was a chance for a global health fellowship to pay for a ticket home. I was born in Iloilo.
Next to me was a man holding a live chicken with his bare hands. Right then and there, a light bulb popped: This is where I want to be.
A few months later, armed with a doctorate in clinical psychology and a newly-minted public health degree, I moved back to the home I left 24 years earlier.
I came back driven by one thing: I was going to do my part to help in mental health. I returned with the wish to write my own story different from that started by my parents when we moved to Los Angeles in 1991.
I benefited a great deal from this story. Like all our mothers, mine was a nurse, too, in Saudi Arabia for much of my early life. My father worked in local government. There have been many benefits of having one foot in one place and having the other somewhere else: accepting the dream of my parents without being bound by it.
That dream of living in the US belonged to my parents. It was their story, not mine.
In January 2015, I came back to where I was born to firmly plant both feet in one place. But more than two years as a professor at University of the Philippines (UP) Manila, I am fighting the urge to leave the university and holding steadfast to why I should stay.
I now know why my parents wanted to leave the country. Here, you receive low pay in a stressful work environment often plagued by job overload and slow promotion.
Abroad, there was a promise of higher income with better benefits and supportive working conditions – and for me at 10 years old and my brother only a few years older, a chance at a better life. My parents were pushed out by this country and pulled in by another.
This is only part of the story – and only now do I deeply know why.
The job can be stressful. Some days are toxic. This is part of the work. But there is something else: it can feel demoralizing. Stress comes and goes – a downward slope only to return to better days.
Disheartening work is not that. It is not an act or a decision to look at a situation differently, so I can feel less negative about it—like we can do with stress. Demoralizing work is a long sustained loss of some part of ourselves. We lose joy in the work, but most crucially, we lose meaning in it.
Why do meetings start 30 minutes late, yet I am expected to stay 30 minutes longer? Why do I need to canvas for lunch? Why do I need to write a letter and pass it “through channels” so that I can request someone else to write another letter? Why does an online form need to be printed out 3 times? What then was the point of doing it online? Why are degree programs so prescriptive, effectively diminishing the natural curiosities of students?
I waited 3 months for an ethics board review: The feedback was to correct one sentence. I am waiting for a reimbursement of personal money I spent nearly 12 months ago. I got approved for a research funding in September 2018. I am still waiting for that grant.
I am amazed at how parochial my experience is seen. It is viewed and dismissed as merely a culture clash, with an entitled, Americanized balikbayan butting heads, almost laughingly, against “things are just different here” or “that’s the way it is.”
What is missed is the larger issue – a thoughtful dialogue on why such mediocrity is tolerated and on how we can strategically do better for ourselves. An efficient, effective work environment is not “American,” it is not “Western.” We all deserve – and are entitled to – a supportive place to work. Because work is not just about earning money. We can count ourselves most fortunate when we are doing something meaningful and enjoyable.
My contract with the university ends next year. I am deeply committed to doing my part in closing the mental health gap. I have every intention of pushing for public health and public policy as critical drivers of this much needed transformative change. However, I sometimes wonder how much fire my passion has left and, truth be told, if such drive can be better nourished elsewhere – in another university or organization.
It saddens me to ask: is the university actually getting in the way of the reasons why I came back?
I remind myself that I did not come back here for UP. I returned to help the home I left.
I do wish to stay at the university. I interviewed at the “big” schools in the metro soon after landing in early 2015. But the choice was easy. UP demonstrated the genuine wish to help local communities, especially those most vulnerable. It mirrored the very same reason why I came back 4 years ago.
And a great deal of what we hear about the university is true – magaling, matalino, masipag (talented, smart, diligent). I am surrounded by colleagues who are excited about nation-building and by students who will stand by that commitment for generations.
In an October 2018 speech, Dr Jose Dalisay Jr, the university vice president for public affairs, quoted an editorial from the student publication, The Philippine Collegian. He eloquently and so poignantly reiterated the long-held university tradition of “protecting the freedom of intelligence from the infringements of lies, orthodoxy, and mediocrity.”
I sometimes wonder how well the university has been protecting that freedom. That editorial was from 1962. – Rappler.com
Dr Ronald Del Castillo is professor of psychology, public health, and health policy at the University of the Philippines Manila. The views here are his own.