education in the Philippines

[OPINION] Poverty is not a hindrance to success – that is a lie

Nordy D. Siason Jr.

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[OPINION] Poverty is not a hindrance to success – that is a lie
‘People will forget your Latin honors. You will be remembered not for topping the board examination, but for alleviating the pain and suffering of the sick, for reassuring the mentally disturbed, and for holding the hands of the dying…here in our cities and towns, where your tuition came’

(Originally titled “Alkansiya,” this was the speech delivered by the author during the West Visayas State University commencement ceremonies on June 6, 2024, at the WVSU Cultural Center, La Paz, Iloilo City. Rappler is republishing this with permission.)

“Knowledge without character is dangerous; character without knowledge is ineffective.” This is Theodore Roosevelt’s take on the need for both character and knowledge. But what is even better than knowledge is wisdom, which, according to Aeschylus, is not just about having knowledge, but about knowing how to use it for good.

It is common knowledge that basta taga-West, the best. So today, allow me to deviate from talking about academic excellence because it is already given – you are all excellent, the best and the brightest in the region, perhaps even the whole nation: basta taga-West, the best. I take pride in that hashtag, too, you know. Every time I hear it, I feel proud that I am a full-blooded taga-West.

However, in the real world, I have come to realize that knowledge is useless, even dangerous, if not coupled with virtues.

Roosevelt and Aeschylus provide valuable insights. While knowledge and character are both essential, true wisdom lies in using knowledge ethically and effectively to better oneself and others. Research indicates that competence and a positive attitude are pivotal to workplace success. Competence ensures that employees possess the necessary skills and knowledge to perform their tasks effectively, leading to higher productivity and quality of work. Concurrently, a positive attitude, encompassing traits such as resilience, teamwork, and ethical behavior, fosters a collaborative and motivating work environment.

Character over intelligence

I learned this truth by experience. So, in my capacity as university president and appointing officer, I place greater value to character over intelligence. Of course, it’s better to have both. Here comes a great challenge then: For education to also strongly focus on character development. Perhaps that’s why I’m here today – to talk about the importance of a positive attitude in today’s competitive and demanding work environment.

So, indulge me when I share my experiences with you. I do this in hopes that between the lines and behind the anecdotes, there are lessons to glean that will somehow inspire you to invest in your character.

I grew up in a typical barrio in Anilao. The life there was challenging; my father was a fisherman, and our neighbors were all fisherfolks and farmers. Instead of goofing around and skinny diving from poetic boats that you often see in movies romanticizing poverty and rural life, we children were taught how to catch and sell fish. I feared I would grow gills and scales, basi siling ko, matubuan na ko sini hasang kag himbis.

So, one day, when my late father decreed that I would take over his fish venture someday, I stood my ground and said, “Indi lang takon manubli ka obra mo Tay.” (I will not inherit your work, Dad.) I resolved that, no matter what it took, I would earn a college diploma and pursue a professional career unrelated to fish. Please do not misunderstand this as any sense of shame regarding my father or the noble work that has provided for our family and enabled seven of us to become professionals.

But perhaps life is messing with me. I ended up becoming the president of a fisheries university, the Iloilo State University of Fisheries Science and Technology, and there, almost every day, we talk about fish. Even our university logo is a fish. See the trickery of life? Tatay must be tossing and turning in his grave, mocking me, but…affectionately.

I can say that I am a prototype of public education. I received my basic education in public schools, and I earned my master’s and doctorate degrees here at West. I served as a student leader here, and one memory that makes me smile to this day is when, during the culminating activity, our professor did not book us for dinner at the hotel because we were just too many. He prioritized his students from other colleges, and we from the College of Education were forced to eat somewhere else. Being their council president, I led them to the old Nena’s Manokan near San Agustin.

There at Nena’s, nipa kag kawayan ang ambiance, kagnagakinamot lang magkaon, kag damo damo sa amon mga taga-uma, gane biskan nagsunggod kami ngaginpasulabi sa hotel ang iban nga colleges, sadya sadya kami guihapon…because we were in our comfort zone!

(There at Nena’s, the ambiance was of nnipa and bamboo, and we ate with our hands. Many of us were from the countryside, so even though we were offended that the other colleges were prioritized at the hotel, we were still very happy because we were in our comfort zone!

When it was time to pay the bill, chaos started. Sus, pagbinukaray kahita para magbayad, nag girinual pamurot ka mga sensilyohon nga nagkarahulog, hay mga pambayad ka iban, ay ahay, halin pa seguro sa mga ginpamuka nga alkansiya. Imagina ninyo, sadya linagsanay ka pisoson nga nag linagatok kag nagakururing,padasig dasig pudyot bag-o mahulog sa giha sang kawayan nga salog. Nagkomosyon sa Nena’s, pamatyagko,sa pensar ka iban nga customers sadto, “baw hu, nagdurulhog halin sa bukid, ka mga buki guid tanaka mga taga-Ed ka West.”

(When it was time to pay the bill, chaos started. Oh, when we emptied our pockets to pay, coins fell out everywhere, and some people even took out money from makeshift piggy banks. Imagine, everyone scrambling to pick up the coins that were rolling and rattling around before they fell through the bamboo floor. There was a commotion at Nena’s, and I think the other customers there were probably thinking, “Wow, these folks must have come down from the mountains, these unsophisticated education students from WVSU.”)

The poor works doubly hard

It was funny, really; hilarious even. But that incident touched a sensitive string deep in me, a disturbing feeling of shame and doubt, but also a beautiful feeling of compassion for my batch mates. The alkansiya incident equipped me with a few lessons that would come in handy in my eventual roles as an instructional leader.

When I became the principal of Nasyo (Iloilo National High School) and eventually the president of ISUFST (Iloilo State University of Fisheries Science and Technology), I saw firsthand how lack of finances debilitated education. Many say that poverty is not a hindrance to success. That is a lie. The poor almost always must start from scratch, and with higher costs of living and more demanding curricula, they are disadvantaged. To achieve the same level of success as their rich classmates, the poor must work doubly hard and sacrifice twice as much.

A while ago, I told you about my Education batch mates and their alkansiyas. Looking at you now, I would guess you are far luckier than the taga-West of the ’90s. And I can say with certainty that you are more privileged than most of our students there at ISUFST. Many of them there would have moved heaven and earth just to be sitting in your chairs right now.

In other state universities, students look up to you. I suppose that is because they know that your West diploma is a virtual certificate of employment. Apart from your prestige, you are more or less guaranteed a chair at the interview tables of hiring companies.

If students in other schools are envious of your opportunity, I cannot blame them. But I have a challenge for all of you. How do you give back to the public that has helped subsidize your excellent college education?

How do you justify having the privilege to be trained to be topnotchers and graduates of a prestigious institution, the privilege that was deprived of your batch mates because the government and this university can only accommodate this many students?

You probably feel that it is not your fault you are qualified and are about to graduate here. True. However, the concerns of the government that paid for your tertiary education are also your concerns. The least you can do is help solve some of the problems that ail Philippine society.

But, then again, lucky you. The West Visayas State University core values are the arsenal with which you can contribute to the common good. Excellence, Creativity and Innovation, and Service – these values are your weapons. But as an alumnus of this university and as an educator who has dealt with the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich, I have come to know that what the country really needs these days are not just scholars who excel in the academe, but scholars who serve. The Scholarship-Service formula is your ultimate skill, your special skill, your SS in Mobile Legends parlance.

Beyond acquiring knowledge

Scholars who do not serve are just like books on the shelves – collecting dust, eating up storage. For you to be a true scholar, an authentic taga-West-the-best, you must go beyond simply acquiring knowledge. You must use your intellectual pursuits to create a positive impact on the world, especially on those who have less.

If you are a graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences, your SS, your Scholarship for Service, entails critical thinking that challenges the status quo and seeks solutions for a better future. You will research with a purpose, addressing issues that humanity faces, from developing sustainable energy solutions to promoting social justice. Your research will not only inform, but it will also empower and enable the marginalized, the starving, the miserable. Are you up to the challenge?

If you are a graduate of the College of Business and Management, your SS, your Scholarship for Service, is proposing innovative solutions that do not widen the gap between the rich and the poor. You will not cheat on taxes or circumvent laws to gain unfair advantages for the already rich at the expense of the already poor.

If you are a graduate of the College of Communication, your SS, your Scholarship for Service is articulating the pains of the hungry, the sufferings of the injusticed, and the distress of the depressed. You will speak truth to power and question unfair systems on behalf of the powerless and the voiceless. You will write and broadcast news as objectively as possible, but you will slant them to highlight the good, the just, and the humane.

If you are a graduate of the College of Education, the country needs your SS now more than ever. Your Scholarship for Service is not just knowledge dissemination but also heartful knowledge sharing. You will enlighten minds, yes, but you will also have to model resilience, advocate love of country, and, above all, instill kindness. You are the hope of the Department of Education, now struggling and rife with academic regress and challenges. You will be the hope of the Philippine education system, the hope of our fellowmen. You will champion and empower everyone, especially the 20 million hungry Filipinos. You will give them a fighting chance at getting enough food on their tables by helping them land decent-paying jobs via quality education.

If you are a graduate of the College of PESCAR, your SS is training and educating Filipino athletes, musicians, and performers whose craft are not just for entertainment, but are also powerful tools for social change. You will coach and mentor, yes, but you will also challenge stereotypes and foster empathy and understanding across cultures and backgrounds. Your songs will ignite a movement, your dance will spark dialogues about inequality, and your teams will defy prejudice on the field.

If you are a graduate of the College of Information and Communications Technology, your SS, your Scholarship for service, is helping this country’s economy through globally competitive systems that do not undermine the value of human dignity. You will take advantage of the internet of things, artificial intelligence, even robotics to harmonize the world, not divide it. You will be inventors, but not for the sake of invention but of human beings who feel, who laugh, who cry.

If you are a graduate of the College of Nursing, by now you are already challenged to sustain or surpass expectations. First to maintain your almost perfect Board Exam records, and second, to produce more topnotchers than the previous batch of graduates. However, I am so sorry to be the one to remind you that the expectations are far greater than that. Your SS would require you to help heal the sick, there in your barangays and municipalities, where the ill need the taga-West-the-best nurses.

The best, the kindest

In a few years, people will forget your Latin honors. You will be remembered not for topping the board examination, but for alleviating the pain and suffering of the sick, for reassuring the mentally disturbed, and, with TLC, for holding the hands of the dying…here in our cities and towns, where your tuition came, not there in Germany, Belgium, London, or Florida.

Dear WVSU graduates, going abroad to earn money is a noble deed, if such cash finds its way back to the Philippines to provide for your families and start businesses that generate jobs for our kababayans. My own four sisters are working in Australia, Germany, Chicago, and Maryland, and I have the highest admiration for all of them, especially for sponsoring scholars, helping our relatives, and donating to local charities. But please, have a place in your heart to also serve our country and our people.

Life is transient. Why are we even here? To hoard money so we can lord over our fellowmen? Or only to make some, just enough to make life bearable until we die? It is a sad life if we believe that we are here to show we are immortal if we have more, when we know for a fact that we are all going to die, prince or pauper, billionaire or otherwise. But do not get me wrong. With your West education, I want you to make so much money that you can help as many of our people as possible. That should be your basic skill, your innate taga-West.

In closing, I want to emphasize that Scholarship for Service is about using the power of knowledge to make a genuine difference in people’s lives and contribute to a better world. In more practical terms, Scholarship for Service is about being excellent and being the best so that you can help more people. These are the people in your communities, or students in other universities, many of whom do not even have an alkansiya to break.

As your commencement speaker and fellow taga-West, I dream that your Ma’am Mabel and I will live long enough to see the day when people will not just say, “Basta taga-West, the best.” In our lifetime, we wish to hear the hashtag: BASTA taga-WEST, THE BEST, THE KINDEST. –

Dr. Nordy D. Siason Jr. is president of the Iloilo State University of Fisheries Science and Technology.

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