Keep Heart & March On, Young Filipino Graduate


March. A verb that means "to advance in step in an organized body; to go forward." A noun: the month between February and April - which in the Philippines marks the end of an academic year.

With graduations happening left and right this time of the year, it's also when proud parents spam email inboxes with valedictory speeches and commencement addresses. My dad was a regular spammer of such. To this day, my old email account still contains speeches of Mikaela Fudolig, Tony Meloto, and Manny Pangilinan (oh yes, the controversial one). However, there are two commencement addresses that stood out, dated 2005, on the year I marched for graduation:
"Be a Hero! Be A Filipino!" by Eduardo G. Fajardo

Consider yourselves lucky, very lucky... Your parents have the means to get you to the best school where you can get the best education along with the best minds and talents in the country. But, even now, you must be aware that, soon enough, you will have to take care of others around you. Because you have been gifted with so much, you will be responsible for a lot more.
Let me now show you who you are responsible for.  I am told that, in 2004, there were 7.7 million Filipinos working abroad, roughly 9.3% of our total population. If you add the undocumented ones, the percentage figure can easily rise to 10% of our total population. One out of every ten Filipinos is working outside the country! If each such Overseas Filipino Worker ("OFW") has even only two dependents, that means nearly one out of every three Filipinos today depends on OFW remittances for their livelihood. For you to get a better appreciation of this diaspora, 2,378 Filipinos left every single day of 2003 to work abroad.

This exodus is the single biggest mass movement of workers in our century. It has and will continue to have major economic, social, political, and moral ramifications on the future character of our country and our people.

For some time now, OFWs have been carrying us on their shoulders. To begin with, our economy is totally dependent on OFW jobs to keep unemployment down and to maintain economic growth at a steady pace. The earnings of OFWs  are probably the only thing keeping our economy afloat at this time. $ 8.55 Billion of annual remittances  go a long way towards supporting families back home and shoring up the government's dollar reserves to help service maturities from our $ 56 billion of foreign loans... 
... Like all else, there is a price to pay for all these. The Filipino family system is at risk. Almost one-third of our population is growing up without at least one parent:  the absence of a mother or a father against the backdrop of available cash has strained our traditional family structure and values: we see broken marriages, second families, prostitution, out-of-school youth, drug addiction, among others,  on the rise in the OFW sector.

It is no bed of roses either for the OFWs abroad: the women are the most vulnerable to human trafficking while the men take on some of the most dangerous jobs. If they escape these, many OFWs are forced to accept entry-level jobs because the quality of public school education back home has so deteriorated that they lack the professional skills to compete at higher job levels.  Thus, every time a bomb goes off  in Israel or a truck driver is kidnapped in Iraq or a maid is beaten up in Singapore , we hold our collective breath as a nation, fearing that yet another Filipino has been abused or, worse,  that another Filipino is going home in a casket.

And still Filipinos continue to brave dangers and endure loneliness away from their families for a simple reason: we have collectively failed them.  We have failed to create enough decent jobs to save them from a life of grinding poverty back home. We have failed to create a fair and just society, respectful of the rights of every man, woman and child and protective of our environment.

Every generation has a defining challenge. My generation was asked to reclaim democracy from a cruel dictatorship and to restore justice.  We did get democracy back but we have utterly failed so far to make it responsive to the needs of the people. The challenge for your generation today is to create enough decent jobs for a fast-growing population and to promote a better quality of life for all in a fair and just society. The personal challenge for you, of course, is to stay home, forego the "American Dream" of material comforts and cast your lot with our people.  Your response to these challenges will define you and your generation; it will be the story of your life. (Read full speech)
"Stay Foolish. Stay Hungry." by Steve Jobs  
... So you have to trust that the dots (in your life) will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life...
... Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. (Watch video)  

Let me tell you how these two speeches connected seven years later, with me hunched in front of my computer this side of Taiwan...

After my college graduation, I had the strongest conviction to "stay home, forego...material comforts and cast the lot with our people," as Fajardo challenged my generation. There was even a time when I felt so bad hearing news from friends who decided to look for greener pastures that I had to write something about it. Four years later, because of sudden turn of events, I found myself packing my stuff, settling in Taiwan, remitting money to different Philippine savings accounts, and dialing call card PIN numbers for cheaper international call rates. It's as if I lost a toss-coin challenge and suddenly took a bite at life's irony.

However, as Jobs said, "So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future." That's when irony became life's way of showing me different perspectives of a situation. Being an OFW now taught me a lot of things that I could never learn if I just stayed back home. I started to see, listen, and feel the real pains brought by the lack of opportunities for millions who had no other choice to but to find work abroad.

And so to the new graduates, including by dear sisters Patricia and Enchie, the personal challenge after graduation is to keep your idealism alive. Even when you find yourselves dreading traffic jams, cubicle claustrophobia, and paycheck tax cuts. Your ideas and opinions will definitely change but never let that young voice drown inside you, even when the real world tells you you're wrong and foolish.

Don't become apathetic about the Philippines -- even at times of crazy political dramas that a no-return exit strategy seems like the soundest idea. Circumstances may push you to leave home but don't ever succumb to the "Ganun talaga eh / Whatever" mentality. There are a lot of things we can do, more than just posting on our Facebook walls the brands we like or food we've tasted. Always have the heart to come back home but don't wait until retirement age to inspire change to the nation. Not when your knees are starting to get wobbly and could no longer take another march forward.

Keep heart, dear graduates, and march on!


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