Graduation in June
The University of the Philippines shifted its academic calendar last year, so for the first time in our history we had our graduation exercises in June, which proved to be quite challenging.
I thought I’d write about what we went through, as a way of preparing the other universities who have shifted or will be shifting their calendars. I also want to share some thoughts I had while attending the graduation rites, particularly why I actually felt some sadness during the ceremonies.
The UP Diliman commencement has always been held outdoors, in the amphitheater behind Quezon Hall. When we shifted the academic calendar last year, there were dire predictions about a June commencement: Surely, the oppositionists said, there would be monsoon rains, if not a typhoon, which meant the grounds would be muddy, the participants would get soaked and, worst of all, the sunflowers, so iconic of UP Diliman, would not bloom, or would wilt from too much water, finally collapsing from monsoon winds.
We decided to take the challenges head-on, organizing full force to tap into the expertise that’s available in UP. I like to call it the UP Way, which emphasizes teamwork instead of competition.
The sunflowers: I asked around at UP Los Baños. Couldn’t we use a native sunflower found on roadsides, especially up in Baguio? No, they said, it’s wild, unruly. A Dutch friend offered to write her embassy so we could get the flowers from the Netherlands, maybe even maroon varieties. (Maroon and green are UP’s colors.) I said that would ruffle our ultranationalists’ feathers.
I did find out we have maroon gumamelas but, alas, they don’t bloom in June.
So we decided to take a chance and stay with our sunflowers… with a twist. We added dwarf varieties. A test planting was done as early as June 2014 and it worked—a mix of the tall for the spectacle and the short for the strength and resilience.
This year in May, our Campus Maintenance Office asked permission to start the planting for graduation, but we ran into seed supply problems. An alumnus offered to send seeds from Florida, but we were worried about acclimatization. So we made do with what we could get. About two weeks ago some precocious plants began to bloom, and then, a week before the day, almost like a symphonic orchestra, they all rose to the occasion in perfect synchrony to welcome visitors.
The venue was something else. At one point, the planning team did consider taking the commencement indoors. UP Theater is the largest in the Philippines, with a seating capacity of 2,000, but it is still inadequate for our nearly 5,000 graduates. We even thought of holding the ceremony at the Philippine International Convention Center, which is what UP Manila does. As a convention center, it is larger than UP Theater, but we also felt uncomfortable. If we speak of traditions, an outdoor ceremony on Diliman grounds just seemed inviolable.
We decided to take the chance outdoors, and to fight the odds against rain by having the ceremony start early in the morning, calling on graduates and faculty to assemble as early as 6:30 a.m.
The previous day we remained on edge, checking with our meteorologists. We even had text blasts prepared, sent out at 6 p.m. Saturday and 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. Sunday, to inform graduates we were pushing through. If there had been strong rain, we would have sent a text informing the students they were considered graduated. That would have been another first, albeit a sad one: degree conferment by text!
There were all kinds of last-minute preparations: asking the Katipunan jeepneys to start early, deploying our new Bemac e-tricycles, having an ambulance on standby.
Sunday I was up with the roosters at 2 a.m. No rain, not even showers, for which we would have been prepared with a punas (wipe) brigade.
“Kay ganda ng umaga (What a beautiful morning)!” was my greeting that Sunday for our graduates. I went on to share what we had done to ensure the success of the graduation. Our UP Way included a less-than-scientific measure: Donating eggs to Santa Clara.
In retrospect, maybe the two dozen eggs were a bit much. We were prepared in case it rained, but not quite so for a day that turned out to be much too clear (get the connection now to Santa Clara?). An afternoon commencement meant we began with some of the sun’s afternoon heat, but as sunset approached, it would cool down. This time, we got the sunrise, appropriately symbolic of commencement, but forgot it would ride high into the sky, beating down, unrelenting.
It was more difficult for the UP officials and our speaker, Br. Armin Luistro, up on the stage because we faced the east directly. Initially the heat brought back memories of ROTC in my college days, but as the morning wore on I felt more like a bibingka (rice cake)—heat from the top and heat from the bottom, because we were on a metal stage. I had to stand for almost two hours, giving out medals, my barong turning into a mini-sauna. Later, the joke was that I had turned into “Chancellor Tanned.” Another joke was telling each other “Well done!”—because we felt like steak that had just been broiled.
But people said I held up pretty well, keeping my poise for almost two hours.
I had to. We pulled out all the stops, even bringing in theater people to streamline the sequence of events and to rehearse everyone. It just didn’t seem right to use an umbrella. Only the best for our “Iskolar ng Bayan.”
The night before, I visited the venue at around 11 p.m. for a final check. I had a few moments to myself, sitting on what would be an oven in the morning. In the silence and the darkness I suddenly felt some sadness, realizing that so many students were leaving us. There was also anxiety as I asked myself if we had prepared our graduates adequately to serve the country, as we keep telling them to. I worried, too, if they could survive a world that is often not half as kind or tolerant as UP.
The next day at the ceremony I smiled, shook hands, hugged students who were my advisees or who had worked with (sometimes against) the administration through student councils. A big hug, too, went to Tiffany Uy, not so much for her getting the highest general weighted average in UP postwar history as for her now-popular quote about a grade being only a number and how much more important it was to serve people after graduating.
There were students whose financial struggles had drawn my intervention, with the help of generous donors. When one of the mothers whispered her thanks to me, I remembered the times when I wondered if her son was eating at all.
And then there was the student who insisted that his parents get his medals—a change in the tradition that I heartily welcome. When he did that, I suddenly felt a surge of confidence, sure that we had educated our “Iskolar ng Bayan” the right way.
Like parents sending off their children, I told our new social scientists during a Saturday ceremony to keep coming back to UP to visit, to tell us about the new worlds they were discovering, new loves (but not too many of the people kind, I hope), new lives.
To all our graduates, UP or non-UP, I want you to know that even more joyful than our graduations are the homecomings, each one an occasion, as we listen to your stories of the past and the present, to affirm our commitment to staying on and teaching, mentoring new generations of students.
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