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To the Class of 2020

With so many hungry and dying, I told my daughter to stop griping about the postponement of graduation,” says my doctor friend, a frontliner in the pandemic. I disagree.

Graduation certainly is nonessential, but it is important. You have worked hard, your family has sacrificed; it is but fitting that you go on stage while they beam with satisfaction. I often turn down invites for talks, except for commencement: Whether for K-to-12, college, professionals, licensure, excitement is abuzz, everyone is elated, a lump catches in my throat.

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I had prepared to address some of you this April and May. I had wanted to tell you about my students: Roselle Ambubuyog, whose visual disability never stops her from learning and helping; Hya Bendaña, who, with the courage of her father, a jeepney driver, acts for what is right; Lyonel Tanganco, who has chosen the road less traveled, serving in government rather than elsewhere; Chris Tiu, well, you all know him. Google them—they are inspiring.

But graduation 2020 is unusual, joy tempered with anxiety. I am also a mother of one of you, my only child is studying in another land. Unlike our schools, theirs will proceed with graduation this week, online. Even if I yearn to hug my son, I take heart that friends and family who normally would not have been able to can join in the event from their homes.

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So while I hope to still meet you in the new normal, in October, January, or whenever, as your schools request, with another batch joining you perhaps, I want to address you now. With a virus wreaking uncertainty despite global best efforts, and a mother’s mix of love and concern, pride and worry, I want to talk to you now, from the heart.

My son was close to his late grandfather, my dad whose studies were cut short by World War II. Barely 10 years old, he became a calesa boy, perching precariously at the side to assist passengers and to pocket coins as tips, to help his parents support seven other siblings.

Later on, my dad would tell my son war stories—bowing to the enemy for fear of bayonets, rejoicing when the victors came laden with canned goods—but he never dwelled on the negatives. After the war, he went to medical school, where he would meet my mother.

I was never called to medicine, and today I regret never discussing with my parents why they became doctors. Upon my mom’s premature demise, my dad said tearfully that she had often chosen to treat indigent patients. From this and other snippets, I realize that both of them had witnessed misery and death early on in childhood, and likely were drawn to a profession that proclaims life above all.

To choose life over death, to hone skills to help others, to create meaning out of futility: This is what my parents and their generation—your grandparents and their parents—did. This is what I urge my son—and all of you, Class 2020—to do now and forever.

This is your defining moment. And sure enough, you are rising to the challenge. You are helping the most vulnerable: with marketing prowess, you are raising funds; with coding savvy, you are making databases; with statistics skills, you are projecting quarantine scenarios; with arts and engineering smarts, you are making masks and shields and ventilators. With faith and reason, mind and heart, you are buoying each other up, and helping rebuild our nation.

Much has been said of your generation, but beneath your competitiveness and self-doubt, we your elders rejoice as you crusade for nondiscrimination, mental health care, environmental protection, respect for all, and many more. And we pray that when the decades pass, you will continue to uphold the good.

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Despite the pandemic, the economic turmoil, the social dislocations, we know that with you, our country will be secure. Someday, when you take the helm, may you remember that in 2020, when the greatest crisis of our time erupted, you faced it with courage, strength, grace.

Queena N. Lee-Chua is a professor at Ateneo de Manila University, and a columnist for Inquirer Business.

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TAGS: Class of 2020, COVID-19, education, graduation, health crisis, pandemic, Quarantine, schooling
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