this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on June 11, 2011.

I have always dreamed about delivering a graduation speech, though I have never deserved that honor. I was never the smartest guy in class, or the hardest-working. I was not very active in extra-curriculars, in politics or athletics. I had no extraordinary attributes to warrant the honor of speaking on behalf of my fellow graduates. I am merely one of 164 who graduated from my school and more than 4,000 from the university, one of several hundred thousand new graduates in the entire Philippines this year. Nevertheless, sitting in front of my flickering computer screen with only me, myself and I as my live audience, I would like to address my fellow graduates.

First of all, congratulations to each one of you. Give yourselves a round of applause.

More deserving speakers try to leave you with a rousing thought or a valuable life lesson that will help you move out of the school gate with a sense of direction, eager and raring to change the world as we know it. I will not do such a thing. That would be too pompous for someone like me who makes speeches only to himself.

The summa cum laudes rely on quotable quotes to jazz up their speeches. I might as well do the same. This quote comes from my favorite Filipino novel, F. Sionil Jose’s “Mass.” It’s a story about a young probinsyano called Pepe Samson who goes to Manila, lives in the slums and educates himself in a so-called “diploma mill,” and sees the harsh realities of social conflict and struggle during the Marcos years as a student activist and later as a human rights victim. Early in the nook, Pepe’s best friend defines the role of the youth thus: “To create a society … that is dedicated to the upliftment of the masses. To serve the people, that is what!”

Many summa cum laudes have said the same thing: that our role upon leaving the academe is to serve the people, the nation. It’s so easy for them to say so. They are standing on a gilded soapbox, with envious eyes staring at them, hanging on to their every word. But most of them have neither the idealism nor the drive to push these utopian notions.

And what did Pepe say? “The youth have no role. They have no jobs. They have no money. They are not in power and they do not make decisions. If there is going to be a war, they will all be dumped into the army. And they will be killed like young men everywhere have been killed—whether or not they believe in the war. Having no role is their role.”

I agree. We are nothing. We don’t know anything. We don’t even have the foggiest notion about what we are going to do after this fancy shindig, this event where we dress up in robes and wear silly hats with tassels.

I earned a business economics degree from the best university in the country, finished the four-year course in three-and-a-half years, and graduated cum laude. But I will be the first to admit that I don’t know much after all my schooling, or anything really.

I used to think that I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a businessman, just like my parents. I thought (and still continue to think) that entrepreneurship is a noble profession. This is anathema to my activist friends who think capitalism should be abolished, but hey, to each his own politics.

Anyway, I have been working in the family business for six months and the yabang in me is wearing off. ’Yun pala, it’s so hard to manage even a small part of the business. And you think it’s great to be the son of the owner?

As I deal with my responsibilities and the pressures that come with the job, I realize that I still need to know many, many more things. I realize that what I need to know right now I did not learn in college. I am not talking about the technical skills, which are important but can be learned as one progresses in one’s work and career. I am talking about things like building relationships, coping with stress, managing time, dealing with people, accepting and learning from mistakes, surviving the daily grind, and wait (everybody has this in mind), how the heck do I make myself rich?

I truncated my college years. I did it because it gave me a purpose, a sense of accomplishment. I didn’t go out a lot with my friends, I only joined one student organization, I wasn’t involved in school politics or athletics, because I thought those things were mere distractions to graduating quickly. Instead I spent most of my leisure time in my room, watching TV shows on my PC, eating and sleeping. As a result, I missed opportunities to learn. I realized too late that even from goofing off with friends and fraternizing with others you can pick up a thing or two.

As I sit here seven months after college, I feel regret. It is not because I won’t be walking up the stage to my batchmates’ applause and speaking about whatever topic I please, but rather because I do not have so many fond memories of my stay in college. I enjoyed it, but I spent most of it in boredom and idleness. My biggest regret is not enjoying college life more, not making more friends, not keeping myself occupied. But then I was young, and wisdom is gained through experience and age.

That’s why I find it pointless to listen to pep talks about serving the nation, putting honor above excellence, and whatever it is that students are supposed to do. What do students really know about making the world a better place? What intelligence and abilities do they possess to immediately make a difference? They cannot set public policy. They cannot feed the poor. All they can do is protest in the streets, wave placards and create noise, as they stand in the stifling heat, exposing themselves to the danger of tear gas, billy clubs, or worse, stray bullets, like what happened to Pepe’s friend.

What we can do—and what we should do—as the future citizens of this nation is to make ourselves better. Maybe it is because I studied economics, but I believe that our natural tendency is to act in our self-interest, and in uplifting ourselves we are able to uplift society.

This is why I want to go into business. Sure, I want to make money, but where would all the jobs that people need come from without people like me starting businesses? Entrepreneurship is one way of uplifting others by uplifting oneself.

So I tell other young men and women: Invest in yourselves. Learn to listen, and listen to learn, from all repositories of knowledge available to you. Value the wisdom of elders; they know more than us. Suffer the hard knocks of life; what does not kill you makes you stronger. Do not pretend that you know everything, because quite simply, you do not and you cannot.

Armed with knowledge and wisdom, you can then work on being the best person you can be. Success, positive change, economic progress, social upliftment, moral strength—these will follow. Those are things the government cannot provide us. Through your individual efforts to improve yourselves you can make society better.

As you go out into the real world, don’t forget that this is merely the beginning of your education. If you truly wish to help others, help yourself first. You owe it to yourself and to the world.

Congratulations to us all.

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