Sister Soledad, mentor and friend
One of the most influential women of my wonderful college life was Sr. M. Soledad Hilado, OSB. Because she was the dean of students when I was the Student Council president several lifetimes ago at St. Scholastica’s College (SSC), I had the chance to work very closely with her. I can hardly recall now what Student Council issues came our way, but what the 40-some years cannot erase is the quality of the friendship and her caring.
By the time I met her, she was no longer a classroom teacher and had run the gamut of all the administrative titles of hierarchy in the Manila and provincial schools. And as Maya Angelou wrote, it is not what teachers teach or say that we remember, but how they made you feel.
Sister Soledad was always gentle and mild-mannered, betraying her Negros gentility. She saw my tempestuous self go through personal heartbreaks, from my favored candidate losing a campus election to my forgetting a speech (alone on stage at what seemed then the cavernous St. Cecilia’s Hall) to feeling guilty because the school lost in some “outstanding student” competition because I was not “outstanding enough,” to campus fair woes. With my bosom college buddy Bel Ramirez, we would implore her to discipline the late Cristie Ramirez and Jo Ann Rodriguez, those perennially contrary girls younger than we, who were always flaunting their alleged Kabataang Makabayan membership to shock us. KM was the dreaded student organization of Reds, would-be Reds and pinkos, and Bel and I were ensnared in their wiles. There were also the rising student leaders, Ma-an Hontiveros and Sylvia Muñoz, who deserved a reprimand or two. Or even a mere look of displeasure from Sister Soledad.
Over the years I would keep in touch, sometimes not too faithfully, but she seemed interested enough to share the highs and lows of my life. It was only close to graduation and during the subsequent occasional visits that I was emboldened to tease her about her very feminine ways and whatever details from her personal life we had managed to unearth—rumors that she was the belle of the ball in Bacolod, that she excelled in dancing performances in her youth, and, not a rumor but a belated discovery, that SSC awarded its summa cum laude honors to only 16 of its graduates in all of its 100 years, and Sister Soledad was only one of two math graduates to accomplish that feat. An even more recent revelation is the list of her other academic awards: besides her AB math summa cum laude, there were a BSE math magna cum laude, an MA education meritissimus (Ateneo de Manila and University of Santo Tomas), and a PhD education meritissimus (UST). No wonder she demanded excellence from us, her young wards.
A member of the Benedictine congregation since 1947 when she literally ran away from home, Sister Soledad is a woman way ahead of her time. Long before feminism was a battle cry, she made both faculty and students aware of the role of women in society. A pillar not only of SSC but also of Philippine education, she was a board member of the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines and actively served the Philippine Accreditation Association of Schools, Colleges and Universities (Paascu) for 45 years as board member, commission chair and accreditor. It is a tribute to her that Paascu has the respected stature it has today, as it is she who handpicked its longtime executive director, alumna Chita Vallejo Pijano. In 1999, Ateneo honored Sister Soledad with the Bukas Palad Award in recognition of her outstanding contribution to Catholic education.
Her work ethic and professionalism have built the St. Scholastica Research and Development Foundation, which grants scholarships to less privileged and deserving students. Nothing fazes her, not even her mandatory monthly health regimen that confines her to her room for a few days. With her laptop and her mobile phone and her books by current favorites Mary Higgins Clark and Nicholas Sparks, life goes on. And you know she is fine when she sends her abbreviated text messages—a contrast to the rules of propriety she holds dear. The latest says that she has books to donate to “my street libraries.”
Today, I remain very much in awe of Sister Soledad, a young nonagenarian. Who can forget her timeless words that God is always there for us no matter what, and that one should do what is right, not because of what others may say but because that is what Scholasticans do? When asked how she would like to be remembered, she says, “As loving you all, even if it did not look like it when you did something not so good, or I was not being good [myself].” She has not changed, and perhaps, neither have I.
Never lavish with her praise, when she does say something complimentary about a recent article I had written, I walk on air for days, the uniformed, gawky Scholastican once more, wanting and needing her imprimatur yet again.
May today’s students be blessed with the good fortune of a mentor as caring and as constant as Sister Soledad.
Neni Sta. Romana Cruz (nenisrcruz@ gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of the Sa Aklat Sisikat Foundation and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.