Dear graduates and incoming freshies

Sylvia Estrada Claudio
Dear graduates and incoming freshies
Your primary duty to yourself, your family and your nation is to learn

“Learn your A B C’s, it is not enough, 

but learn them! Do not let it discourage you,


Hungry man, reach for the book: it is a weapon.”

– Bertolt Brecht 

I know you may find it strange that I address this open letter to different groups. After all, what do people at the start of the journey of college life and at the end of it have in common?

Campus life has its own seasons. And the graduation season is separated from the new semester by barely more than a month. It is a time of hustle and bustle and joy on the campus. Most faces are busy but joyous. Most faces have a tinge of anxiety for what they are facing. Both graduates and freshies may have overjoyed parents running around with them. The only difference is that the freshies tend to cross on pedestrian lanes and stop people to ask for directions.

There are many similarities, but I wish to focus on one the issue of grades. Both groups are thinking about grades. Graduates are of course “grade conscious” to various degrees. For one thing, they need to ensure that all the subjects were completed with passing grades. For others there is the hope of getting honors. Then, of course, each graduating class wants to know who is the batch’s valedictorian.

Most freshies are thinking about grades too – what it will take to get a passing grade, what more needs to be done to get a good grade, what kind of grades they have to keep to retain a scholarship or go to graduate school or get a good job.

Many of you, like many graduates, may need to be more grade conscious than others because the scholarship may be the only means to stay in school or because a good graduate school or a good job after graduation is your family’s hope of getting out of poverty. Many of you may not be in such dire straits but remain grade conscious because your parents, who have worked so hard to get you where you are, would be pleased if you get good grades.

Bad or good

There will be those who will tell you that grade consciousness is a bad thing. That grades are not an indication of an intelligence or learning. That learning out of the classroom is a more valuable thing. That your duty to your country demands that you think less of your grades and put less time on your school work and put more of it on any number of things. In my campus, it is rallies or demonstrations or organizing other students for nationalist causes.

There is a grain of wisdom in that, too. It is true that some of those who get high grades get them by cheating. It is also true that many professors don’t do their jobs and they give high grades to those who don’t deserve them or low grades to those who deserve higher. Even the conscientious ones are only human, and therefore grades are not really a true measure of the work done.

There is also the issue of grade inflation. Us oldies like to think that getting a high grade was more difficult in our time. This may be true. There are more students now, competition is much more fierce, and teachers are more overworked and perhaps less caring. But I remember even in my time (forgive a bit of personal sharing and a small brag) a kindly person at our student’s records office called me in to say I only needed to convince one professor to give me a higher grade and I would get a higher Latin honor. I refused, if you are interested. But there was grade inflation even then.

Don’t you just envy those super geniuses who really did not need to study but aced their classes anyway? And did it matter if that other girl got the same grade as the super genius by spending hours at her books? I myself could not spend hours at my books. Or at least, not at my school books. In medical school I was known as the girl who sat in the back and read fantasy novels.

I will admit that studying to get into medical school and studying to become a doctor insulated many from social realities and made some of us apolitical and selfish. But that was not true of most of my classmates. Forgive a bit of a brag again, but my medical batch is the only one that reversed the ratio of UP College of Medicine graduates who are abroad or in the Philippines. Most of us stayed here to serve, and many have come back. But that nationalism did not start after graduation. A number of us were in the anti-Marcos underground running secret cells and organizing. And lest I be unfair, many classmates abroad are still out there doing good things and fighting for important causes.

Unpacking grade consciousness

What I have tried to do is to “unpack” the concept of grade consciousness. “Unpack” is a good academic term. It encourages you to think a concept through so that you may make wise decisions.

Those who encourage you not to care about grades because it gets in the way of your education or your service to the nation should be shunned because they encourage either/or and black-and-white thinking. They pack the concept of grades in the wrong bags. They do not help you see it with critical eyes. Unfortunately, such pseudo-intellectuals are to be found in any academic community. And they are so good at couching their language in academic rhetoric that they fool many into thinking that they are smart and that they are teaching life’s lessons.

But in the end, they are merely painting the complexities of  the world in black and white. Oh dear, dear, freshies! Do not allow such charlatans to lull you into the lazy habit of letting them think for you. 

Your primary duty to yourself, your family and your nation is to learn. 

This is why you are in a university. I don’t expect you to get the best of grades for every subject unless you are one of those geniuses who finds that easy. But if you don’t find it easy but still want to work for exceptional grades, I expect you to do it not because your parents want this (few parents want that level of obsession); not because it will land you in some big multinational corporation that will give you big money; not because you are so insecure that grades are your only measure of self-worth.

I expect you to do it because that path of learning is fun for you. As a sufficiently good student myself, I was called into the administration office when I was an undergraduate and scolded for enrolling in classes that were not in my curriculum. I only got away with it because the woman running the records office was my neighbor who said I should be forgiven since I aced all the extra classes anyway. I took the extra courses because, ooohlala, classes can be fun.

Balance and complexity

For the rest of you I expect a good balance.

If you need to cut down on certain things in order to keep your scholarship or get the grades to go to medical school or law school, do so. But I do hope you can find a balance. Doing nationalist things isn’t incompatible with getting good grades. During my years in medical school I was also doing a lot of anti-dictatorship work. But I would not have allowed that to distract me from my primary duty to the country, which was to use my privileges to become a doctor. 

But if for some reason you cannot be distracted from your studies by anything else – then study, and study only. 

There are so many good reasons for this. You may be a working student or you really are less of a genius than your classmates. Remember though that you must give back when at last, all that studying is over. How you will give back is up to you.

But if you learn and not just study, you will understand that a good life means having the integrity of keeping yourself and your loved ones housed, clothed, fed and educated, now that you have the capacity to do that. But a good life also means experiencing the joy of giving back to others. And you must use your sharpened mind to learn which are the worthy causes and which are the foolish ones. I trust you to do that because I trust myself and my colleagues to have taught you that way. Those who would dictate what your causes should be neither trust their colleagues nor you to make the right decisions.

Getting good grades and serving others are not incompatible with each other, nor does one detract from the other. On the contrary, they are synergistic. The happiest, most beloved and socially relevant people are capable of a whole lot of self-care and a whole lot of caring for others.

No one needs to make sacrifices to get the most out of education.

Beware of people who ask this of you. Most parents would be happy with better grades but know you well enough to know that grades are not your true measure. Do not worry if the intelligence that grades reflect is not your type of intelligence. Most of my students are delightful because they do other things too – join organizations, plant trees on weekends, support LGBT issues, sing in their choir, etc. There are studies that show that successful people are not the ones with high intelligence quotients but those with high emotional quotients. Many of the great men and women we know did not graduate with Latin honors.

Having said this, I need to be clear that I demand excellence from all of you. I demand you to pass all your classes with the highest of grades. If you can’t, that’s fine. But as a teacher I need to believe in you and encourage you to excellence. I expect you to be a paragon of academic excellence, personal growth and social involvement. If your teachers do not set the bar this high for you, take it against them. 

Learning about life through school

Remember that school must teach you the joy of life-long learning and the rigor of life-long discipline. 

When we teachers bother you with requirements in order to grade you, the best among us are using the only tool we have, poor as it may be, to test not just whether you understand course content but also whether you have learned the bigger lessons. 

The school curriculum, the course content and the requirements are the path your teacher took to get to her scholarship. Follow that path and do the work. If the teacher’s path is unworthy you may drop the course. I cannot assure you that you will find all your faculty worthy. In fact I am asking you to be critical of all us. Aside from those who would sacrifice you to their ideology we also have the lazy, the sexual harassers, etc. Be critical of your teachers. ADMIRE NO ONE. Be especially wary of those who would want you to admire them.

But you must trust the system enough to see it through.  

Do not let people think that your duty is elsewhere while you are in school. Your duty to yourself, your family and the nation lies in your studies. Do not let people muddle your thinking that relevance lies somewhere outside your studies (here we go again with their black and white thinking). It is in the classroom and in all the other things you will do outside of the classroom.

In school you will learn to juggle many priorities; to control and enjoy many passions; to deal with the complexities of life. Do not let anyone lull you into thinking that there is only one priority for which all must be sacrificed (here we go again with their either/or thinking). You will find, if you use that brain of yours, that these ideologues, of whatever religious or political persuasion, never lead the sterile life they prescribe for you.

The scholarly life, college life, can be the most wonderful thing. If you’re a freshie, promise yourself that you will make it so. Unleash your inner nerd! If you have just graduated and have no further intention of doing academic work, remember always the lessons you learned in school which made you a better person. Isn’t that why you stayed in school? –



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