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Alfred Vargas: As an Iskolar ng Bayan

On that fateful Sunday morning in the fourth week of July, tears unexpectedly rolled down my cheeks as I sang “UP Naming Mahal” along with hundreds of other graduates of Batch 2021. It was the first time I was singing the beloved song as a graduate of the University of the Philippines National College of Public Administration and Governance (NCPAG), Master of Public Administration. And I couldn’t have been any prouder.

True, having an online graduation ceremony must seem rather lackluster and lengthy as my fellow graduates and I sat home, in front of our laptops, experiencing everything virtually. There was no march. No awesome UP Diliman campus filled with sunflowers for Instagram posts. No sharing of our joys and relief through handshakes and hugs with fellow batchmates and professors. No group photo ops of us proudly wearing our Sablays and with the biggest smiles. No celebratory meals with the entire clan and friends. It was just the computer screen and ourselves, with a thumbnail of participants, much like a webinar, on one of the biggest days of our lives.

But when the performance of the UP artists began, the whole feel of the event started to change. I became oblivious to my mundane setting. The performances tugged at my heart and moved me immensely. The graduation speakers gave rousing messages. And I felt I was really “there”. Especially when altogether, we moved our Sablays from right shoulder to left. It dawned on me, we were able to graduate and have this ceremony despite the great limitations of the pandemic. This was no lackluster and lengthy event. It was extraordinary and very, very, special.

I am, after all, a proud “Iskolar ng Bayan”.

The never-ending quest to learn

Completing my master’s degree made me feel young and upbeat again.

The last time I graduated was 20 years ago when I received my AB Management Economics degree from Ateneo. Back then, I was just a boy figuring out how to become a man. I was confident and felt I knew so much. That I was ready to take on the world. That I can take on any challenge because I had enough preparation. The exuberance of youth, perhaps? Or the blind confidence of youthful impatience?

The difference now, as I graduated again two decades later, and having learned so much from my experiences in show business and public service, is that I honestly feel I know so little. I feel like the knowledge I have gained is still inconsequential to the understanding of life or to the goals I need to achieve. Maybe wisdom gained through the years unforgivingly taught me how miniscule I was compared to the enormity of the universe? How reality dwarfs everything I know? And how the journey to knowledge and comprehension of our lives is an ongoing expedition that never ends?

The moment we say that what we know is enough is the moment we start misunderstanding the world and the relationships we have in it.

I’m proud of my MPA degree because my journey to completing it was not a walk in the park. It required blood, sweat and tears, and a whole lot of humility and open-mindedness. It asked for unconditional dedication and I had to sacrifice a big part of my personal life just to be able to accomplish it.

I remember the caffeine-filled nights trying to beat the deadlines for our term papers. The animated group discussions on policies. The balancing and respect among different political views. The clash of varying opinions that resulted in the agreement to disagree. The nasty and the subtle debates in classes. The solo reports assigned to you where you feared more the interpellations of your technocrat classmates than that of your supportive professor.The struggle to learn the program called “R,” for foundational statistical computing, and forcing myself to embrace it to be able to pass the course. The contextual analysis of current events and policies. The search for sustainable solutions and finding out that sometimes, it is almost impossible to determine one so we’ll have to settle for the next best available answer. Understanding the difference between a star paper and a thesis paper. The experience of defending my two star papers to a panel of Ph.D. faculty for a total of seven hours.

I had to learn so much then. And I know I have yet to learn more. But I did have one fundamental realization while in this never-ending quest to learn.

That no amount of structural transformation, economic progress, and skills development can cure a society with broken values and fragile principles. The answer always emanates from our hearts, our characters as individuals, and as a people. We are the change we need. We have to bet on ourselves more and trust that we as Filipinos, with the guidance of the Almighty, can govern ourselves dependably and create a more just and humane society. That we can really effect positive change while enjoying all our freedoms and making this world a little more wonderful each day.

This is the learning I will carry on for life.

Being present in class, even while being robbed

There was this one unforgettable time, I was in my PA 208 class (course title: The Philippine Public Administrative System) when I checked my phone and saw 15 missed calls from my assistant. I instantly felt that something was wrong. I stepped out of the class and returned the call. She was crying hysterically when she answered that I could hardly understand what she was saying. She said, “Konsi (I was a councilor that time), nandito ako sa harap ng bahay ninyo. Ninanakawan kayo! Ninanakawan kayo ng katulong ninyo! Kita ko sila ngayon mismo. Nagsasakay ng mga gamit ninyo saisang taxi at pati ang vault ninyo pilit na sinasakay pero ‘di nila mabuhat!”

I couldn’t believe it. I paused for five seconds. Breathed in and breathed out. Then I told her, “Ok. Salamat. Relax ka lang. Ganito gawin natin. Tatawagakosa subdivision guard, sa barangay, at QCPD para huwag silang palabasin sa gate. Ipahuli natin mga ‘yan. Unahan mo sila at pumunta ka na doon sa mga guard at i-repor tmo na lahat. Whatever happens, huwag na huwagn inyong palalabasin ng subdivision ang mgayan.”Good thing the security guards responded swiftly and they were able to catch the taxi in the nick of time.The barangay officials arrived shortly, and then the PNP, to apprehend the suspect.

The whole situation, from the call to the apprehension of the suspects, happened in just 25 minutes. I was standing there on the second floor of the corridor of the UP-NCPAG building handling the situation from my phone. When I checked my watch, it was 7:20 p.m., our 10-minute break. As my classmates came out, they saw the look on my face and expressed their concern by asking me if I was okay. I gave them the thumbs up.

When I got the confirmation that the QCPD was on top of everything already, I went back to class, participated in the recitation-debate, finished the class at 9:00 p.m., then rushed straight to the Batasan Police station. It was only there that I dealt with all the processing of the complaint, statements and media interviews. I was very fortunate it ended up that way.

But that was how important my classes were to me. I was being robbed and all and after having quickly managed the situation, I had the commitment to myself to stay, finish my class, and do my duty as a student. This is the kind of devotion that UP asks from you. Much more so for graduate students.

A promise fulfilled

A promise to my mother is a promise I intend to keep, at all costs. She may not have seen me physically march and graduate, but I definitely felt her presence the whole time. I cried during my graduation because I wanted her to be there so badly. I did this for her. I wanted to hug her so tight. I wanted to tell her how grateful I am for everything she has done for me. I wanted to tell her how much I love her.

Being able to keep my promise to my mom means the world to me. Even after her death, the mother and son bond lasts. My way of preserving this precious bond responsibly and honorably is by passing all the lessons she has taught me to my two daughters and son, and by being the best example of these lessons. Every day, I hope that my children will see their Lola in me.

Being blue and maroon

Just like my mom, I am now from both Ateneo and UP.

My friends always ask me, “which side of Araneta Coliseum will you sit then?” Having studied in Ateneo for 16 years, from prep to college, it is a difficult question. How does one choose between two favorite siblings? How do you choose between your best friend in high school and your best friend in college? But I’ve thought it through.

If the opposing teams are from other schools, I’ll definitely cheer for both Ateneo and UP. But if UP and Ateneo are competing against each other? Well, it’s a win-win for me either way. I’ll cheer for both alma maters who share the same value of love for country, excellence, and service.

So where do I sit then? Well, I’ll sit on whichever side has the best available ticket and I’ll be sure to bring my blue eagle shirt and my maroon jacket. I would, after all, be cheering “Halikinu!” and “UP Fight!” and sing both alma mater songs in the end. The perks of being blue and maroon!

The journey

As I keep saying to the people I meet, this journey in UP has been more than just about the degree. It is an achievement, indeed, but it has also made me a better family man and a public servant.

I want to teach not just my children but also my fellow citizens to never stop being passionate about learning. That no matter how old we are or how vast our experiences, we have to learn something new every day. This is what makes us better in understanding people, in facing challenges, in solving problems, and in making this world a better place.

The quest for knowledge continues: perhaps a doctorate degree next?

We’ll see.

For now, thank you, UP for all those remarkable memories.

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