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[OPINION] A briefing for incoming first year college students

Dear First Year Students,

As we start a new semester, let me give you some advice that comes from decades of teaching.

In my institution, UP Diliman, we have put in place a very wise policy banning organizations from recruiting first year students. This is to allow you time and discernment because your choice of organization may determine whether you achieve your goals while you're in university.

So, indeed, this advice might also apply to incoming second year students in UP and, I hope, for college students everywhere.

I also hope those who read this who are parents might find it worthy to pass on to their children and other young people.

Academic goals

Let's talk about what those goals are. First of course, it is to finish your schooling. This is why your parents (and if you're in a state college or university, the Filipino people) are sacrificing to pay or help you pay your tuition fees.

For all the imperfections of our educational system, getting a degree is still a strong predictor of later success. It may not be a guarantee and many people succeed without a degree. But it is still one of the biggest factors. The fact that you have the opportunity to get a college degree puts you among the ranks of the very privileged in this country and in the world.

Please do not let anyone tell you that the success that a degree can help you achieve is merely a financially comfortable but meaningless life. The degree may help you indeed gain financial resources and you may end up using those resources for only selfish personal ends and even to hurt others. In which case you failed in getting the best of what schooling can give you.

But I find that this is a very rare outcome. Because selfish citizens are not what the educational system is designed to achieve. The minimum that we hope to achieve is a responsible citizen. That is, you should be able eventually to provide for yourself and your family financially, care for them emotionally, be a law-abiding person who respects the rights of others.

There is nothing wrong with this because it is on the bedrock of these activities that our society survives and that saints and demons, fascists and democrats, statesmen and women, and corrupt political bosses will flourish. When we say that the state has a responsibility to provide education to its citizens, I take it to mean that it is the responsibility of the state to educate you towards happiness, self-sufficiency, social productivity, and peaceful co-existence with others. I disagree with those who say that you have a larger responsibility. They do not understand the responsibility of the state towards its people. Basic rights are met by the state and an understanding of what a “right” means is that nothing should be expected in return.

I would have left teaching a long time ago if I did not believe and could not rejoice that this kind of basic decent citizen is the most common baseline outcome of the educational system.

And this is by no means easy to achieve. It requires a lot of resources. Resources that can only be found usually in the educational system.

It also requires that you successfully navigate the educational system now that you have gone through the preliminary stages that prepare you for this final and beautiful journey of the self.

The wonderful world of free ideas

Believe me it can be beautiful and joyous. Coming to a university is like coming to a bazaar of ancient and new exchange. There are flavors and spices; musical forms wrought from a variety of instruments; gems of various colors polished and unpolished; teas, coffees, alcohol of astounding flavors and varieties – a variety of things endless and indescribable. But unlike a bazaar of material objects, the marketplace of ideas is restricted only by human imagination. Keep your eyes wide, your ears sharp, and your mind open at all times. And even if you should eventually choose to concentrate on an academic area, ideology or cause, your exposure should teach you that yours is not the only wondrous thing and that your choice is not superior to all others. This basic intellectual humility is a great wisdom that college life will teach you regardless of what degree program you choose.

Actually, I hope that you go beyond being an informed and enlightened person, who takes responsibility for herself or himself, takes care of the family and respects the rights of those you love and also those whom you do not know. I hope you eventually see that a meaningful life in service of bigger causes can also be a happier choice.  But that you go “beyond” is just my bias. And what "beyond" means is subject to debate so that you will still to learn and discern even more if this is your desire too.

Yet, where there is much to gain there is also much to lose. And the very virtue of this open and endless world is also its vice. False wares and dangerous commodities are everywhere. And charlatans and thieves wish to harm you. And it is in the nature of a university with its liberal traditions of free thought and academic freedom that it must give space even to these dangers.

The only protection from corruption and take over by those who would use this freedom to harm others are the citizens of democracy itself. That, having tasted freedom you learn not to fear its boundless possibilities and escape into dogma and rigidity. And this courage is also what you can learn. It will protect you against the fraud and bring you to the joyousness of learning and living.

A few pointers

But let's get into the nitty-gritty of practical things.

In UP as in other colleges and universities, various social and political blocs, ideologies, and persuasions exist.

Naturally, each will try to convince you that theirs is wonderful and really suited to your goals. They will put their best foot forward. But listening to the self-description of organizations is only a very small part of making the right choice.

I do not think there is an organization in UP that would claim that it is not nationalist, not democratic, and not for student rights and welfare.

But like the big world out there for which you are being prepared, there are many flawed organizations whose organizational processes and policies do not reflect their espoused values.

How can you tell? Here are a few pointers.

1. Organizations with harsh, painful and demeaning recruitment processes should be avoided. You must think twice about organizations that put you in danger.

If people truly believe in the validity of their causes, they should not make it difficult for you to join them.

Remember also that we have a long history of hazing deaths.

But here I must warn you against stereotyping. Not all frats and sororities undertake hazing and several "barbarian" organizations have hazing initiations.

Later on organizations may offer to take you to areas where there is fighting between the military and rebel armies. This act essentially puts you in danger. And there are many instances too when students are caught in the crossfire or harassed by the military and this leads to their being delayed or unable to finish their studies.

This is why degree programs which have field work activities always ensure that these fieldwork placements are not in fighting zones.

If you choose this with eyes wide open than I respect you. But often such organizations normalize this so that you must take a second look before realizing that putting people in danger is not the work of school organizations.

Also, as someone sworn to protect your welfare, as someone who has sworn to keep you safe and help you maximize your learnings and finish your studies, I strongly advise you not to make such a choice.

Time to be the discerning adult that you are. If what you are experiencing is hazing or some form of dangerous activity – get out of there. Such practices are not only illegal, they are plain immoral.

 2. Organizations that ask you to prioritize activities over your studies.

Often this is rationalized by saying that your classes are irrelevant and that you must prioritize a higher nationalist cause. In UP, you will hear of these organizations soon enough because many of their leaders are indeed those types who do not attend classes, do not submit requirements, and often fail, drop, or get incompletes. In short they are barely students.

You may admire their zeal and commitment at first. But as a fellow professor of mine has said, "May daya ang mga ganito (There is an element of cheating here)." You are indeed an iskolar ng bayan or iskolar ng magulang (scholar of the people or scholar of your parents) and all the laws, policies, and academic traditions say that your main duty at this point to self, family, and country is to learn well and get your degree. Student leaders should at least mirror what we expect of exemplary students.

Furthermore, there is absolutely no proof that the alternative education you get from extracurricular organizations is superior to that which you would get from your regular courses. In fact, there is abundant proof that it is not. 

Extracurricular activities and studies are meant to enhance and supplement classroom learning. They are not meant to replace this. Any organization that asks you to do that is selling you short.

3. Organizations that ask you to spend less time with family and older friends are dangerous.

A few organizations on campus are actually undemocratic. They are more after exclusivist in-group agendas that ask you to diminish your social relations such that later you find that the only real identity you can relate to is with that group.

Strange as it may seem, even the smartest students can be slowly sucked in by these maneuvers. They do not start by asking you to spend less time with your family or friends. That only start later when they have convinced you to join them and you believe in the worthiness of their cause.

Then they will praise you for spending more and more time on organizational work and activities and show displeasure at your attempts to balance studies and family life with organizational life.

As always, you can always choose to go down this path. As long as you know that you are being led down the path and you agree to go there.

But again, unless your family is abusive and extremely dysfunctional and unless your older friends are false friends, I strongly ask you to double check with your own common sense whenever any group asks you hide things from your family and to limit rather than expand social relations.

4. Organizations that vilify or demonize “enemies” may be psychologically unhealthy for you.

Whether it is another frat or sorority, a hatred for women or LGBT people, or a person or group labeled counter revolutionary, heathen, or infidel – you have to think twice about learning to hate.

The goal of your education is to teach you to take evidence-based and ethical positions on issues whether scientific or political or religious. Another goal is that you must learn how to handle differences of standpoint and opinion. One can disagree very strongly. Debates in academia are wonderful things to see especially when experts and scholars hold forth on matters they have spent their lives studying.

But the basic tenet of all learning is the understanding that one can only have part of the truth. All truths are provisional. To hold fast to principle even while entertaining doubt is a basic learning across all sciences.

Thus we can get angry at ideas and concepts but not at the people who hold these ideas. We can criticize without demonizing and be criticized without thinking that those who oppose us are demons.

Organizations that emphasize in-group loyalty, demonize critics, and resort to pushing other students and groups away are essentially undemocratic and are not teaching you social solidarity.

5. Be aware that many student organizations are actually tied up with larger political formations with pre-set programs and ideologies.

There is nothing wrong with this except that some organizations initially are vague about these affiliations. If an organization is not upfront about its national or international affiliations, and you only learn about this through hints and actions, ask yourself why they are not being above-board.

Let me stress again that you have every right to join such organizations. But do consider your choices. Personally I prefer organizations which do not hide anything from the start.

6. Professors, teachers, and instructors should not interfere with student politics. Beware of teachers who bias your choices and beware of the organizations these teachers want you to choose.

Beware of teachers who recruit you to organizations and beware of these organizations that rely on the power and influence of teachers to gain membership. Some will require you to join political events such as rallies and pickets without bothering to tell you how that is related to course objectives. Or, if they explain, you still cannot see the relationship

If this happens, remember that teachers must respect your political or religious choices and cannot impose their own. Even if they say that a rally or picket or activity they require of you is a learning activity, you may still request an alternative activity if you do not agree or understand the standpoint that the rally or is pushing.

In short, any teacher who requires you to join a political or religious activity or express a political or religious opinion which you do not agree with is violating your rights.

Beware of teachers who stir you toward one particular organization too. Or who would influence who you would vote for in student elections.

Other teachers ask you to come to their homes, do extra work for them outside class, accompany them on trips. These are often opportunities for sexual harassment and other forms of abuse. These are all unacceptable.

Other teachers dangle examination leaks or tips to those who are members of their preferred organizations. This is also unethical and wrong. 

Those teachers who do this should actually be thrown out of the university. Though they may be intimidating you should find the courage to report them to you’re the administration.

Release your inner nerd

I must add though that while I must warn you against the bad behavior of a few teachers, most teachers I know are caring professionals who do not agree with the behavior of a few bad apples amongst us.

Choosing the right organization, asserting your right to have more than one organizational affiliation, or deciding not to join an organization is one of the things you will have to do during the years you will be in university. Making the right choice, avoiding organizations that will get in the way of your studies and goals will be crucial to your growth as a person, your enjoyment of college life, and your future success.

Welcome. Release your inner nerd. These can be some of the best years of your life. – Rappler.com

Sylvia Estrada Claudio teaches at the University of the Philippines in Diliman.