this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on September 13, 2008.

My innocence and my sense of adventure were the reasons I chose to study in a university located in Marawi City. On the day I received my notice of admission to the university on a scholarship, I came home very happy. But my family did not share my joy.

My grandfather, a World War II veteran, expressed strong opposition. He pointed out how risky it would be for me, a Catholic from Bukidnon, to study and live in a university populated mostly by Muslims. My aunts and uncles seconded him, saying they did not want me to go through the same experience as one of my aunts who was forced to move to another university many years ago. They advised me to attend a nearby university for one year and then transfer to the University of the Philippines which had put me on the waiting list. (I could not tell them I hated the idea of living with an uncle in Manila and being under his strict supervision.) My parents were also reluctant to give their consent, but my mom told me they should support whatever decision I made.

I followed my heart, not theirs. I chose to study far away from home and live on my own without supervision from any relatives. I took the risk and accepted the scholarship.

In Marawi, I was immediately enchanted by the scenic beauty of the university, which is located on a hill overlooking the serene Lake Lanao and the “Sleeping Lady,” the mountain range that cuts through the provinces of Lanao, Bukidnon and Maguindanao. I liked the cool weather and the beautifully crafted mosques dotting the cityscape and the communities surrounding the lake. I had chosen a place that was conducive to study and I made it my second home.

Although Lanao is home to the Maranaos, one of the 13 Muslim ethnic tribes in Southern Philippines, the university was a melting pot of cultures. There were Muslims from the Tausug tribe of Sulu, the Iranun and the Maguindanao tribe of Central Mindanao and the Kalagan tribe of Davao. There were students who labeled themselves as Chavacanos from Zamboanga, Ilonggos or Ilocanos. There were indigenous students who proudly called themselves Bukidnons, Subanens, Manobos or T’bolis. There were students and professors who believed in Allah, Jehovah, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Bathala, Magbabaya, the spirituality of nature or the universality of God, or believed there was no God. Indeed, the university was a haven of diverse ethno-linguistic and religious groups.

Even among the Muslims, I observed differences in the way they dressed, especially the women. Some covered their whole body with cloth like women in the Middle East. Others wore head scarves. Still others wore nothing that could be connected to their Islamic belief. There were Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims as well as fundamentalist, radical and moderate Muslims.

I studied subjects that were being offered only in that school, like History of the Filipino Muslim and the Indigenous People of Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan. I attended religious celebrations like the Ramadan and fasted together with my Muslim roommates in the dormitory or with friends in their homes. I joined forums on indigenous peoples and learned about their ancient sustainable lifestyles. My university exposure enabled me to study other cultures and beliefs, and helped me understand better my Filipino brothers and sisters whose cultures are unique.

My being a Christian was never an issue. I attended Mass in the Catholic chapel beside a mosque, and made the sign of the cross in public spaces without fear of discrimination or harassment. In fact, I appreciated more the uniqueness of my religion as well as the spiritual beliefs of other people.

In the dormitory where I stayed, I shared a room with a Muslim kuya , a brother from the Manobo tribe of Agusan, and an evangelical Christian. All of them helped me with my studies and treated me like a member of their family.

We sometimes played or watched movies together unaware of any differences among us. We discussed local or international issues, and even debated the most trivial and silly topics without fear that things might go out of hand. We were civil, respectful and friendly to each other. We showed that it was possible to live harmoniously amid diversity.

My student life opened my eyes to cultural diversity and tolerance. The university was like a social laboratory of diverse cultures and beliefs and showed the possibility of harmonious co-existence. My experiences outside the class taught me lessons I could not have gotten from books, classroom lectures or news reports. They showed me the real essence of diversity as well as acceptance of and tolerance for other cultures and beliefs. They made me realize that Divine Providence gave us this gift of diversity so that we can celebrate our individual contributions to humanity and give harmony to our existence.

The university was like a second womb that gave birth to a person that was very different from what I was when I entered it four years ago. Given another chance to choose, I would pick it without hesitation.

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