An american friend sent me a text message early in the week expressing amazement at how he had sat through several hours of one University of the Philippines college’s recognition rites. When I replied that I had four to attend during the week, he sent condolences.
I do find the long ceremonies tiring, but know, too, that they are important. At UP each campus holds one huge commencement exercise that is formal and full of pomp, but it is fairly short (only doctoral and honor students get to go up the stage). All the rest are presented by deans to the chancellor en masse, and at the end of the afternoon, the UP president confers the degrees by proclamation, like a priest officiating at a mass wedding.
Besides the grand commencement exercise, each college holds recognition rites, during which all the graduates get to go up the stage. At the Asian Center recognition rites, which I had to attend, there were only 18 graduates so we were through in a bit more than an hour, including a keynote address by Ambassador Rosario Manalo, short messages from three college deans (including myself) administering the Philippine Studies doctoral program, and speeches from three of the student representatives.
At my own College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, with 419 graduates, it took us three and a half hours, including intermission numbers. I heard that the other large colleges—Engineering, Science, Education—ran as long, or longer.
“Pambihira!” one can say of the length of these rituals, but one can also exclaim “Pambihira!” as some of the graduates come up the stage. From the root word “bihira,” meaning “rarely” or “infrequently,” Pambihira is an expression of surprise, even awe, at the extraordinary.
I wondered if perhaps we should adopt Pambihira as a local equivalent of cum laude (Latin for “with praise”). Pambihira does come close to cum laude, except that magna cum laude would have to be “Pambihirang pambihira” and summa cum laude would have to be an awkward triple superlative.
Seriously, though, commencement and recognition rites are a time to think of the exceptional. Simply finishing at UP is an accomplishment, so it’s not surprising that nearly the entire family goes up the stage with the student. This year there was one student who was accompanied by her parents and two elderly women. One of them read my mind and told me, “We’re her grandmothers, both sides. We’re so proud of her.”
“Pambihira,” too, describes the financial angle. While UP tuition is relatively low, it can still be a heavy burden for most Filipino families, especially when you factor in living expenses. At the College of Allied Medical Professions’ recognition rites, the valedictorian Howell Bayona was emotional as he thanked his parents. He had started his speech by pointing out that his family was not a wealthy one: “Hindi ako anak ng mga doktor (My parents are not physicians).”
Many graduates come up the stage with only one parent, or with both parents missing, and I know in many cases that this is because they’re working overseas to keep their children in the best schools.
As dean, I know who among the students delayed their graduation because they had to overcome much adversity to graduate. I have read letters from students requesting permission to go on leave, or delaying payment of tuition because of parents losing their jobs, illnesses in the family, or kuyas or ates sacrificing their own studies so a younger sibling can continue to attend school.
There were many other emotional moments concerning students whose backgrounds I knew. One graduate had battled a bipolar problem marked by bouts of severe depression, but she made it, with honors. I had to put up a stoic front, too, when one of our anthropology graduates, Dante Tanjuakio, came up the stage. He is a balikbayan in his 30s who gave up a comfortable job in the United States to come back to complete his undergraduate anthropology degree while raising, with his wife, three very young children. Two of them came up with him to the stage and the audience broke out in applause. Dante had to lean down so his son could “award” his father the cum laude medal.
Dante and his wife have decided to stay on in the Philippines.
“Pambihira!” describes how many of the students, especially the ones completing a master’s degree or a doctorate, are able to balance studies with family matters and, in many cases, with their work. “Pambihira!” applies as well to the students who were able to balance their studies with extracurricular activities. We have some of the best chorale groups on campus, including Pugad Psych, which won the 2011 Diliman chorale competition. The group performed at the recognition rites.
I know which students, too, have been active in their organizations, doing their share as well for college activities, and musical performances at our college events. CSSP students in particular are so often multitalented. (Salamat, Adrian Gabriel, who finished a philosophy degree cum laude while being active in one of our college cultural groups. I hadn’t realized, until I saw the cover of our recognition program, that he is also a visual artist.)
Then there’s the college student council, whose members put in long hours after classes with all kinds of projects not just for students but also for non-academic staff. They work all year round, from the freshmen orientation activities, through the Christmas Lantern Parade, to the college week, and into the preparations for the recognition rites. These are not always light activities. I remember their frustration with our last Lantern Parade when the float had, well, a brownout. I’d put all their names here except I’ve run out of space.
Some students will come back to do graduate work, or to teach. Others move on, like passing ships in the night. I can only hope that someday I will meet or see or hear of them in circumstances where I can say, “Our graduate! Pambihira!” Uttered in praise and with pride.
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