A principled choice
Having studied at the University of the Philippines (UP) does not mean that I am automatically forced to work for the development sector. The university culture may have demanded that I help the country in its development efforts, but it is my personal choice to let UP ideals persuade me into pursuing a career that directly impacts policy. We dreamed of being catalysts of change, respected intellectuals, movers and shakers of the country. Many brim with nationalist pride, only to be stumped by harsh realities upon being inducted into the labor force. “Welcome to the real world,” they are told.
This “real world” is far from comfortable. I belong to a generation where “success” is synonymous to “let’s get out of this country.” I belong to an age group where the problems of those who came before us are now being felt at their fullest. And I belong to the young and restless group marked with the struggle between trying to live and trying to make a mark.
This nationalist pride is not exclusive to graduates of UP. Most graduates are instilled with the passion to move our country a step forward, only to feel the weight of their steps as they venture into the real world. Fresh graduates gradually adjust the principles they once held dear, sometimes to the point of forsaking these altogether. The reality of the first job will never completely fit what we had dreamed of high-paying work, a cool swivel chair, the latest gadgets, smooth corporate jargon. For most, out of the list only the chair makes it. As has been said, “Sometimes, the best part of my job is that the chair swivels.”
A good number of graduates settle for a job that will allow them to make both ends meet. Working for a business process outsourcing (BPO) company is one of the popular options for new job-seekers. The BPO industry employs hundreds of thousands and generates billions of pesos in revenues. And contrary to popular belief, it is not a “dead end” job. The work is stereotypically presented as easy, even to the point of the clueless becoming the butt of jokes, but the reality is that those who work in this field endure harsh conditions and strict work requirements on an everyday basis. Their nights are their days, through the holidays, in good health or bad. The allure of twice-the-entry-level salary is strong, especially for those who have a dire need for it.
Life happens. Whether the pay is commensurate to the sacrifice is always a topic for debate. Frankly, I am not in a position to answer that. My first job was not with a BPO company, after all.
I first joined a consulting company that works with the government and foreign agencies in attaining sustainable development. The company is involved in environment economics and management. It was there that I learned the dark side of development work—that not everything is principled and just. I heard stories sufficient to disillusion anyone who holds his/her principles dear. I found myself asking the question: “If people who are not in development work feel that this country has lost its potential for success, then what more those who are actually in it?”
I left the company for a nongovernment organization (NGO) that focuses on disaster preparedness. It was a very timely shift for me, and in less than a quarter of a year, the country was rocked by a series of disasters. In December I was sent to the field, primarily in Eastern Visayas, which was ravaged by Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name Haiyan). I got to witness firsthand the severity of the situation and what needed to be done from the national down to the local levels. I got to talk with the locals, to listen to their tales of survival that allowed me to objectively identify the areas that need improvement.
The work is tough, stressful, and time-consuming. It is also fun, exciting, and uplifting. While there is still a sense of frustration in development work, the feeling that you have something to offer manages to offset the negative emotions. If your principles are aligned with what you do, then you get to enjoy working.
“Can that feed a family?”
This question was posed to me by one of my classmates in graduate school. In our contemporary world, the measure is how high one’s salary is, not how much one contributes to society. It is ironic that in this world, with all its conveniences, we toil and push ourselves just to survive. It is common to hear of graduates who were activists back then but who are now working for industries against which they used to rally. “Well, that’s how the system works,” they say with fatalism. Yes, the truth is just as hard as that. Working for something for which you have a passion entails more sacrifice in a world where just moving about demands a lot in return. Yet, despite this, development workers still choose to work for progress.
I am probably lucky to be working in a field for which I have studied. Everything seems to be an extension of what I studied in school. I am one of the few who are given a direct opportunity to make an impact. The chance to drive the policies of our country’s development is rare in the midst of this very busy and money-minded world.
And now I have realized that we are the marginalized few, the underappreciated working class marked by a perceived lower salary than most. Daunting is the number of sighs you hear whenever people learn that you work for an NGO; daunting, too, are the times you have to explain that your NGO is legitimate. Yet the dreams that we nurture seem larger than life because we don’t just carry our own struggles; we also actively try to make a difference.
I now understand one life lesson that is often ignored in this demand-driven world—that success should not be defined by how much you earn but, rather, by how many lives you are willing to change for the better. This is what I learned from the university. And to answer the question of my classmate as to whether it can feed a family: “No, but it can make a country live.”
Ven Paolo B. Valenzuela, 25, is a program associate at the Center for Disaster Preparedness.
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