2020, 2021, 2022 | Inquirer Opinion
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2020, 2021, 2022

This weekend was an Ateneo Loyola Schools graduation bonanza that will never be repeated.

We had a Mass and addresses on Saturday morning, special rites for 2020 and 2021 on Sunday, the rites for 2022 split into Saturday and Monday.

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We sent off three cohorts of students that had hardly stepped into the Ateneo in the wake of COVID: 2020, whose last few weeks of college were spent in limbo; 2021, whose last year in college was spent entirely online; and 2022, who had spent half their college lives off campus and finally met their professors when they received their diplomas.

Every session with the students followed the same format: a student would scream “Ma’am Inez!”

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I would scream back “Wait! Who are you?”

They would pull down their mask. I would recognize them, scream out their entire name, and hug them. We would jump together, shout together, take selfies.

At a few points, I cried the tears of a proud mentor seeing her wards come home, only to send them once again out into the wilds.

I have students who are already in their second year of law school; one is an editor for her law school journal. Another student works for an ad company and uses my class notes for her marketing research work. A graduate student who had to balance COVID coverage with his thesis is now both a college instructor and reporter for ABS-CBN. A student whom I would sometimes reprimand for not cooperating with group work is now weeks away from a job in Spain, where he will teach English to fifth graders.

I have students working in film, photography, news, and advertising. Others are preparing for graduate school. There are a few who are still unsure about their path and are still finding their way. There are some sending out resumés to apply for their dream jobs.

There are days when I think of what might have been had COVID never come. We would have had in-person brainstorming, class discussions without internet signal interruptions, theses with fieldwork, impromptu conversations in the hallway about anything but school.

And yet in some ways, there are marks of how COVID has turned my students into professionals. They had to fight harder to get their diplomas, earn their jobs, do their work. In some cases, they struggled through sickness, a country that seemed to have no direction with every tragedy that befell it, a nation fractured in a stormy election.

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They learned lessons that the classroom could not teach. Their test was not that of scholarship in a welcoming environment, but a willingness to swim in tides that kept pushing them back.

This weekend, our students looked joyous, in their dark blue togas, their hair all done and coiffed, their eyes sparkling even with face masks on. Their joy was deeper. They were not merely relieved to get a diploma. They appeared as though they had grown through a time of thorned confinement and thick uncertainty, and had earned their scars rather than merely accepted awards out of pity.

When the news came that we would hold multiple graduations in August, I could not help thinking: we used to see our students off in the summer, into a sunny world that shone on their medals and awards. Today, we might be sending them out into the rain, into a world that is stormy, unwelcoming of their hard work, skeptical of their good intentions.

The paraphrased words of lawyer Leni Robredo, whom we awarded this weekend with a Ph.D. in Economics, honoris causa, will serve best here.

“All good things boil down to love, but genuine love exists only among equals. Love is not merely good vibes or a supercharge to the heart, but the silent sacrifices of the everyday. The job of the students is not to simply ‘go down from the hill,’ as the Ateneo hymn says, but to level all ground so that we can see our fellows as we see ourselves—so that we can truly serve.”

The students had already given their all, out of love. The time had come for them to make that love matter in the world: to work despite the pain, show themselves despite their scars. They had already been steeped in isolation for years. It was time for them to step into life.

For a few hours this weekend, there were hugs, encouragement, stories. For a few hours, our students were home, and time stood still.

Today, their task begins: of truly loving, and of breaking down the hills of power.

——————

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TAGS: ATENEO, COVID, students
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